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As Trump moves closer to autocrats, the nation's 'special relationship' with Britain is on the rocks

As Trump moves closer to autocrats, the nation's 'special relationship' with Britain is on the rocks
President Trump attempts a group handshake with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at an Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November. (AFP/Getty Images)

They love him in Saudi Arabia. Britain? Not so much.

President Trump has shared warm photo-ops with autocrats from Riyadh to Beijing and Manila. But the century-old special bond with Britain, America's most celebrated world partnership, is more frigid than it's been in decades. And now Trump has canceled an upcoming visit to London amid expectations that he would draw massive protests.

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News that Trump had scrapped the trip came late Thursday, on the heels of reports that he called African countries "shitholes" in a private meeting in which he also disparaged Haitians and Central Americans. Trump has since denied those accounts, on Twitter, but one lawmaker present during the meeting to discuss immigration policy said on Friday that they were accurate. No other participants disputed the reports.

Trump's comments set off a wave of anger and recriminations from foreign leaders and their subjects, and added to a growing list of countries — many of them longtime U.S. allies — where Trump would get a chilly reception at best.

The reactions, coupled with Trump's canceled trip to Britain, underscore a pattern in the president's relationships with world leaders after nearly a year in office: He has cozied up to the globe's leading autocrats while leaders of traditional democratic allies, notably Britain and Germany, are increasingly uncomfortable with the nationalist American president.

Trump said nothing about the anticipated anti-Trump demonstrations in Britain. Instead, he maintained on Twitter that he was scrubbing next month's trip, which was intended for him to inaugurate a new U.S. Embassy compound in London, because President Obama had cut a "bad deal" in selling the old property.

Trump's assertion was false. The $1-billion embassy project, a high-tech building overlooking the River Thames and designed in part to symbolically represent the two countries' ties, was initiated by President George W. Bush, who cited security reasons.

Already, Trump's visit to a typically welcoming capital had been much delayed. Londoners had made clear almost from the start of his presidency that he was unwelcome, and planned demonstrations. Members of Parliament repeatedly have argued against any invitations.

One of Trump's first acts, a travel ban for residents of a group of mostly Muslim-majority nations, incited much vitriol in England. His anti-Muslim comments and others against the British, the Muslim mayor of London and Europe in general strained what is known as the "special relationship" between Washington and London, the closest diplomatic tie that the United States has.

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, responded on Twitter to the president's cancellation of his trip: "President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and Americans, but find his policies and action the polar opposite of our city's values."

While the White House disputed that there is any fear of protests, Trump's foremost British supporter seemed to suggest it played a role.

"Maybe those optics he didn't like the look of," said Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party and nationalist champion of "Brexit," Britain's departure from the European Union. Farage had campaigned with then-candidate Trump.

American foreign policy analysts were quick to lament the situation.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, said on Twitter, using the acronym for president of the United States: "Sad when a visit by a Potus to our closest ally is canceled b/c he is not welcome. Europeans increasingly reject illiberal foreign, domestic policies of this president."

Trump was invited to London nearly a year ago by Queen Elizabeth for an official state visit, and he accepted. Prime Minister Theresa May personally delivered the invitation when, following tradition, she became the first foreign leader to visit the White House after Trump's inauguration.

As time went on, however, and opposition grew, that invitation was seemingly forgotten. Also, Trump seemed never to click with May, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as he did with other leaders at global gatherings last year.

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By November, the relationship between the Trump administration and Britain grew even more tense after Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British group, elevating a political movement with little support. The tweets drew widespread condemnation in London — one member of Parliament, Stephen Doughty, said Trump is "either a racist, or incompetent, or unthinking, or all three" — and a rare critique from May, who called the actions "wrong."

Trump undiplomatically tweeted back: "Don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"

The trip next month had not been planned as a state visit. May still would have been in an awkward spot, given the imperative to host her unpopular American counterpart.

Much of Trump's most successful travel has been to countries led by autocrats, kings and military strongmen, where public demonstrations are banned or tightly controlled.

In Saudi Arabia, the rich pageantry for Trump included the presentation of a glowing orb. In China, Trump toured a previously closed section of the ancient Forbidden City, spoke at the Great Hall of the People and enjoyed an opulent state dinner. In the Philippines, he was serenaded with a traditional love ballad by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Trump has returned the favors, offering kind words to Duterte, Russian President Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi — all of whose governments have been accused of egregious human rights abuses and zero tolerance for dissent.

In contrast, several of Trump's actions have created friction with traditional allies — U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his badgering of and ambivalence toward NATO and the United Nations, and his hostile equivocation over the landmark Iran nuclear deal to which several allies are signators.

Perhaps just as corrosive has been Trump's name-calling, thinly disguised threats and occasional unfriendly body language.

His awkward failure to return a handshake with Merkel when she visited the Oval Office in March made news the world over. Tense phone calls early in Trump's presidency with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rattled longtime alliances with their nations and rippled wide in their domestic politics.

On Friday, leaders from multiple countries were demanding explanations after Trump's comments about immigrants from Haiti, Central America and Africa were reported. The BBC website ran an interactive feature called, "What has President Trump said about your country?"

The BBC added this, in characteristic British understatement: "What the U.S. president says in public about other countries has been a major part of international diplomacy for the last 100 years. But one year ago, Americans elected a man who prefers plain speaking to the language of custom and niceties."

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Special correspondent Christina Boyle contributed from London.

Twitter: @noahbierman

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