It is an unprecedented problem of diplomatic etiquette: How do you disinvite the leader of your most powerful ally to an already announced state visit?
In fact, informally, some sort of solution had already been found, before President Trump decided to peddle his own version of fake news, and to attack the Prime Minister when she quite reasonably stood up for Britain. Having unleashed a series of impertinent anti-British tweets earlier this year, particularly in the aftermath of terror attacks, expectations of a full-on state visit had been massaged down in any case. There was talk about a less grand “official” business-like visit by Donald Trump rather than the lavish formalities of a state visit, complete with the banquet at Buckingham Palace and a ride through London in a horse-drawn carriage.
The fudge, then, was for the state visit to be repeatedly postponed, with the hope that a short official visit might pass off without undue incident.
Thanks to President Trump and President Trump alone, even that seems an implausible solution for now. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has already been the subject of an unprovoked attack by Mr Trump, and has made his displeasure clear as the leader of the host city (and duly elected as such). Most of the opposition parties, some Tories and great swathes of the British public do not want Donald Trump to set foot on British soil in any official capacity; they might tolerate him popping in to look round his golf course in Scotland, but, for now, that’s about it.
Mr Trump, foolish and callous as he is in some any ways, was at least alive to the public relations aspects of any opposed official visit to Britain. The “optics” would be unflattering. There would be little political dividend in Mr Trump arriving in such circumstances. It is, incidentally, greatly to the credit of the British that they have made their exasperation with Mr Trump known – in stark contrast to President Macron of France who shares none of Mr Trump’s values but who took it upon himself to give Mr Trump the full works a few months ago.
So there is, in fact, no great practical reason to withdraw the invitation for a state visit, because it is unlikely to happen anyway, and can, in reality, be postponed endlessly.
An official government-to-government visit is still a possibility, but tempers will need to cool and the White House will need to quietly repair the damage that has been done by this thoughtless (at best) peddling of hate videos. The British national interest is not served by alienating the United States, even if it is run by someone who insults Britain with depressing regularity. It is a powerful ally, obviously, with whom the British have a long-standing arrangement to share intelligence and generally work together diplomatically. Post-Brexit, America may prove an economically valuable new partner (admittedly less likely given Mr Trump’s protectionist approach); and, to offer some perspective, Mr Trump will not be there for ever, or even that much longer.
When President Trump arrives on these shores on Air Force One he does so as the head of state and government of a “friendly” power, representing the people of that nation, and not as the king of the offensive tweet, owner of a chain of golf courses, the former star of The Apprentice or the potty-mouthed male chauvinist we know him to be. As a private citizen we might be justified in banning him for peddling hate propaganda for Britain First; but as the President of the United States his status is rather different. His visits to Britain are a matter of statecraft as well as good taste.
Her Majesty’s Government, and Her Majesty herself, have entertained much less savoury personalities than Donald J Trump – Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mobutu of Zaire, Ceausescu of Romania, the Shah of Iran and various other despots and dictators over the decades. Set against those guys, Mr Trump is a choirboy. That, though, does not mean we need to be in any great rush to see him. The invite to a state visit – made too hastily by Theresa May – can be allowed to wither while some alternative, less incendiary options are explored. Sooner or later Mr Trump will need to visit London on official business. He cannot be kept away forever, dreadful as he is, because the UK and the US need to talk and coordinate policies to mutual advantage. Banning Trump indefinitely would do neither the British nor the American people much good in the longer run.
Whatever happens, the British Cabinet is not going to make Donald Trump shut down his Twitter feed. Mr Trump may be immature, petulant and deluded but that is no reason for Britain to be.