“Theresa @theresamay, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom,” the US president tweeted on Wednesday evening. “We are doing just fine!”
Trump’s message came in response to criticism from the British prime minister’s spokesman over his retweeting of incendiary videos posted by the deputy leader of a British far-right group.
However, the “@theresamay” Twitter handle that Trump targeted does not belong to Theresa May, the British prime minister, but a woman called Theresa Scrivener. Minutes later Trump deleted and reposted the tweet, this time with the correct handle: @Theresa_May.
The angry tirade, crowning one of the most wayward days yet of Trump’s presidency, earned a swift putdown from the US senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who met May at Downing Street last week to discuss terrorism threats to both countries. He tweeted: “PM @theresa_may is one of the great world leaders, I have incredible love and respect for her and for the way she leads the United Kingdom, especially in the face of turbulence.”
The feud marks a new, unexpected twist in the “special relationship” that has benefited from personal chemistry between leaders such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
There had been hopes that May and Trump - whose mother was British - would achieve a similar rapport. She was the first foreign leader to visit after he took office: they were photographed holding hands at the White House and she invited him on a state visit to the UK. But that has yet to take place after a series of controversies and warnings that protesters will take to the streets to show he is not welcome.
Hostility in the UK deepened on Wednesday when Trump highlighted videos from the feed of Jaydan Fransen of Britain First that purported to show a group of Muslims pushing a boy off a roof. Another claimed to show a Muslim destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, and a third claimed to show a Muslim immigrant hitting a Dutch boy on crutches.
The credibility of the last video was immediately undermined when the the Dutch embassy in the US said the perpetrator of the violent act in the video was born and raised in the Netherlands. Fransen has been charged with using threatening or abusive language following an appearance at a far-right rally in Belfast this summer.
May’s spokesman made clear Trump’s invitation still stood but said it was “wrong for the president to have done this”. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, added: “UK has a proud history as an open, tolerant society & hate speech has no place here.”
Sajid Javid, local government secretary, who is Muslim, posted on Twitter: “So POTUS has endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organisation that hates me and people like me. He is wrong and I refuse to let it go and say nothing.” Justine Greening, the education secretary, told the BBC: “He is a president that behaves like any other in the tweets that he puts out but I don’t think that should be able to undermine our relationship with America.”
The Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, described the retweets as “abhorrent, dangerous and a threat to our society.” He and several other members of parliament called for the state visit to be cancelled.
The Labour MP David Lammy posted: “Trump sharing Britain First. Let that sink in. The President of the United States is promoting a fascist, racist, extremist hate group whose leaders have been arrested and convicted. He is no ally or friend of ours. @realDonaldTrump you are not welcome in my country and my city.”
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, urged Trump to remove the retweets. And Brendan Cox, widow of Jo Cox, an MP murdered last year by a man reportedly shouting “Britain first” as he shot and stabbed her, told CNN: “I think we probably got used to a degree of absurdity, of outrageous retweets and tweets from the president, but I think this felt like it was a different order.
“Here he was retweeting a felon, somebody who was convicted of religiously aggravated harassment of an organization that is a hate-driven organization on the extreme fringes of the far, far right of British politics. This is like the president retweeting the Ku Klux Klan.”
US Democrats joined the condemnation. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and a Muslim member of Congress, branded the president “a racist”.
But the White House defended the retweets. The principal deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, told reporters on Air Force One: “We think that it’s never the wrong time to talk about security and public safety for the American people. Those are the issues he was raising with the tweets this morning.”
Asked if Trump was aware of the source of the tweets, Shah replied: “I haven’t spoken to him about that.”
The spokesman insisted: “The president has the greatest respect for the British people and for Prime Minister May.”
Trump’s new salvo echoed his criticism in June of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, after seven people were killed and 48 injured in a terror attack in the city. Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a western European capital city, hit back on that occasion and tweeted on Wednesday: “Britain First is a vile, hate-fuelled organisation whose views should be condemned, not amplified.”
This article was written by David Smith in Washington, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th November 2017 07.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010