Boris Johnson avoids meeting with Trump during NATO gathering

With the U.K. election a week away, the prime minister wants to avoid appearing too close to the president, who is deeply unpopular in Britain.

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By Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker and Bill Neely

LONDON — Allies of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump are downplaying the significance of the lack of a formal one-on-one meeting between the two leaders during this week’s NATO gathering.

But it was Johnson’s decision not to schedule one a week before an election that will decide whether he remains in power, according to people familiar with the matter.

Before Trump traveled to London on Monday, members of Johnson's team notified the White House that there would be no formal meeting given the Dec. 12 U.K. election, these people said. They said the message from the British was that now is not the time for a meeting with Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the U.K.

Johnson’s political calculation marks a hiccup in a relationship the White House had billed as so close it would pay policy dividends on multiple fronts and more tightly align the two countries. It also underscores the delicate balance world leaders try to strike when it comes to Trump.

President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

Speaking to reporters early Tuesday alongside Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, Trump stayed away from the upcoming vote.

“It's going to be a very important election for this great country,” he said. “But I have no thoughts on it.”

Later, he added: “I stay out of it — I think Boris is very capable and will do a good job.”

A survey in the U.K. from November 2018 to last month found 67 percent of people have a negative opinion of Trump, according to the international polling firm YouGov in London.

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A formal meeting typically would generate images of the leaders together, public statements about the bond between their countries and questions from reporters about their relationship that could complicate Johnson’s campaign message. His opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, has tried to tether Johnson to Trump and accused him of negotiating a trade deal with the White House that would put Britain’s public health system at risk.

The White House and 10 Downing Street are dismissing any notion of Johnson putting intentional distance between himself and Trump.

One senior administration official said a casual, pull-aside meeting during the gathering is possible, particularly following the terror attack in London four days ago. One possible venue is a reception for NATO leaders at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday night.

“If it happens, it’s fine. If it doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t read too much into it,” the official said. “They speak frequently and have many shared, aligned interests.”

President Donald and first lady Melania Trump arrive at London Stansted Airport to attend the NATO summit, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in London.Evan Vucci / AP

A decision not to have the two men meet represents a notable omission on Trump’s schedule in London both because the two men are considered close, but also because it’s unusual for a U.S. president not to meet one-on-one with the leader of the country hosting an international gathering.

Johnson also is hosting a meeting on Tuesday with the leaders of Germany, France and Turkey that’s focused on Syria, and Trump is not scheduled to attend despite the U.S. military role in Syria.

Johnson’s team has prepared a possible response to any criticism from Trump, according to two people familiar with the plans.

In an interview Monday with The Sun newspaper, Johnson carefully navigated questions about Trump, namely by lumping him in with all NATO leaders. He said he has good relations with Trump and all NATO leaders, and that he’d be having talks with Trump and all NATO leaders.

And when asked about critics saying Trump is toxic, he replied, “It’s a very good thing that this country has close relations with the United States and we need to intensify those.”

Trump has a history of inserting himself in British politics. He was a vocal supporter of Brexit — which Johnson championed and that helped propel him into the job of prime minister in July. He has publicly sparred with the mayor of London. And he has already weighed in against Corbyn, the Labour Party leader. In an interview with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in October, Trump said Corbyn “would be so bad for your country.” At the same time he praised Johnson as “a fantastic man.”

In the weeks after Johnson became prime minister, he spoke by phone with Trump about once a week, according to public statements by both governments. The leaders also have held two one-on-one meetings — in August on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in France, and in September in New York during the United Nations General Assembly.

Trump has given Johnson his highest compliment, saying he’s Britain’s Trump. Johnson has said Trump has “many good qualities.”

Since taking office, however, Johnson has been more measured in his approach to Trump. He’s distanced himself from some of the president’s remarks and urged him not to get involved in the U.K.’s election.

Trump, in turn, has criticized a deal Johnson proposed for the U.K. to leave the European Union. He’s said it could adversely affect the two leaders’ ability to reach a trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. aimed at helping Britain transition out of the EU.

The two leaders have not narrowed other policy gaps, including on the U.K.’s role in the Iran nuclear deal and use of equipment from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, or gained traction on a trade deal.

Johnson isn’t the first world leader to find a relationship with Trump tricky to manage. French President Emmanuel Macron invested heavily in a personal rapport with Trump. Yet he was unable to use that to persuade Trump to make specific policy decisions. The president defied the French leader by withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

But Johnson is different in that Trump called him a friend before he became a world leader.