AFP – Prime Minister Theresa May repeated Thursday that US President Donald Trump was wrong to retweet anti-Muslim videos posted by a British far-right group, but stressed that the US-UK’s "special relationship" would endure.
May’s initial condemnation prompted an extraordinary rebuke from the US leader, who told her on Twitter: "Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom."
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Jordan, the prime minister stood her ground, defending her record on tackling extremism — including by the far-right — while emphasising the strength of British-US ties.
"I’m very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do," May said, describing the group as a "hateful" organisation that "seeks to spread division".
But she stressed that Britain and the United States have "a long-term special relationship… it is an enduring relationship that is there because its is in both our nations’ interests".
Trump’s retweets of the small group with no political representation known for its aggressively anti-Muslim stance have drawn condemnation in the United States and in Britain, where there were renewed calls for his planned state visit to be cancelled.
The White House claimed that by retweeting the Islamophobic posts, he had "elevated" the debate about security.
"I think what he’s done is elevate the conversation to talk about a real issue and a real threat, and that’s extreme violence and extreme terrorism," said press secretary Sarah Sanders.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has himself been involved in a string of Trump Twitter spats, said the president’s actions were "a betrayal of the special relationship between our two countries".
– ‘Vile, hate-filled’ group –
May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump following his inauguration in January, where she offered him a prestigious state visit to Britain including a welcome by Queen Elizabeth II.
But opposition to the invitation has only grown, and Khan said Thursday that it was "increasingly clear that any official visit at all from President Trump to Britain would not be welcomed".
May said: "An invitation for a state visit has been extended and has been accepted. We have yet to set a date."
The videos Trump retweeted, purporting to show assaults by Muslims, were posted by Britain First’s deputy leader Jayda Fransen, who has been convicted of a hate crime and faces new charges in a trial starting next month.
Local Government Minister Sajid Javid said Trump had "endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organisation that hates me and people like me".
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt added that Trump’s tweets were "alarming and despairing", while angry opposition MPs called interior minister Amber Rudd to make an emergency statement to the House of Commons.
Addressing lawmakers, Rudd asked them to "look at the wider picture", saying UK-US intelligence sharing had "undoubtedly saved British lives".
But while she too emphasised the importance of bilateral ties, May rejected Trump’s criticism that she was not focused on tackling extremism, following a string of attacks in Britain this year.
– ‘Facts do matter’ –
Trump’s interventions in British politics have strained the trans-Atlantic relationship, particularly infuriating London with his tweets on terrorism in Britain.
In a pointed remark, May said: "I’m not a prolific tweeter myself and that means I don’t spend all my time looking at other people’s tweets. But when I feel that there should be a response I give it."
Ann Coulter, a right-wing US commentator who is followed by Trump on Twitter and may have inspired his retweets, said that he "has only given as good as he gets".
In a highly unusual step, the Dutch embassy in Washington criticised Trump over one of the videos falsely claiming to show a Muslim migrant beating up a Dutch boy on crutches.
"@realDonaldTrump Facts do matter. The perpetrator of the violent act in this video was born and raised in the Netherlands. He received and completed his sentence under Dutch law," it said.
Meanwhile a British woman with the @TheresaMay Twitter account was inundated with unwanted attention after Trump sent her the scolding tweet intended for the prime minister.
Trump’s message was promptly deleted and reposted with the correct twitter handle, but not before Theresa Scrivener, 41, who used her middle name to set up the Twitter account in 2009, received scores of messages.
She said she was "waiting for a call from the White House with an apology".