'I think they like me a lot in the U.K.,' Trump says, as he faces mass protests in Britain
LONDON - If President Donald Trump likes a little chaos, a little disruption on his travels, he has come to the right place.
Asked about the mass demonstrations scheduled for his trip to Britain, Trump said Thursday at a NATO press conference, "I think they like me a lot in the U.K. I think they agree with me on immigration. I'm very strong on immigration."
He added, "I'm going to a pretty hot spot right now with a lot of resignations."
As Air Force One landed at London Stansted Airport Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Theresa May's government was beset by division, her compromise plan to exit the European Union was being excoriated by critics, and rebels in her own Conservative party were threatening a no-confidence vote.
Add to the mix that England lost to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals on Wednesday night, and the nation was suffering from a collective hangover, and not the good kind. Meanwhile, out in the quiet English countryside, 100 counter-terrorism investigators have concluded that a middle-aged British woman was killed by a dose of Soviet-era nerve agent, the same batch of chemical weapon that May charged was deployed on English soil by Russian actors, likely with President Vladimir Putin's knowledge.
Trump is scheduled to meet Putin Monday in Helsinki.
Trump's aides have feared that the wall-to-wall protests could lead the president to lash out during the trip, and great care has been taken to keep him from the demonstrations.
When Trump said earlier in the day that the British liked him a lot, he drew laughs from reporters at the news conference. The president did not appear to be joking but has privately complained his possible reception.
Trump has taken particular interest in the political turmoil in London in recent days, and aides have been coy about whether he will meet with Boris Johnson, whom he has called "my friend." British officials have said privately that would be a "disaster" for May, in the words of one.
Trump was initially invited to a regal state visit last year by May. That invitation has been downgraded to a working visit. Trump and his wife, Melania, will get an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle - an hour with the monarch for tea.
They'll be a gala dinner at a palace, too, and military bands and Scottish bagpipes.
One of Trump's former allies, Steve Bannon, has been camped out in London meeting right-wing populist figures.
Trump will see a number of friends at an exclusive dinner Thursday evening at Blenheim Palace, including Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of conservative media company Newsmax.
Yet hanging over the bilateral meeting is the feeling that Trump and May are out of sorts, at a time when the British government really, really needs Trump to promise some of the fantastic trade deals that would produce the "global Britain" May has promised after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union next year.
Before his departure for Europe, Trump was asked if he thought May should continue as leader. He shrugged and said "That's up to the people." He added that he'd "always liked" Boris Johnson, May's rival, who just quit as foreign secretary while calling her Brexit plans a shambles that will turn Britain into "a colony" of Europe.
Trump got it right when he conceded Britain was "somewhat in turmoil."
Greeting Trump will be a mass demonstration Friday in London - and lot of smaller scenes of sign-waving at every stop on his journey, which will be mostly by helicopter.
Brian Klaas, a fellow in global politics at the London School of Economics, said that as far as the visit is concerned, May is walking a tightrope.
She's in a "Catch 22 with Trump," he said. "Her political base and the broader British public do not like Donald Trump. She also wants to show that in a post-Brexit world, Britain can still be a major player and Trump is central to that narrative."
But, he warned, "if she comes out of this with another photo of her holding Donald Trump's hand, that may not play well with people who find Donald Trump to be politically toxic."
Robin Niblett, director of Chatam House, a think tank in London, said that for May and 10 Downing Street, the Trump visit "was something to be survived," rather than enjoyed.
Recalling the disaster that struck British leader Tony Blair, in his embrace of George W. Bush and his alliance with Washington in the Iraq war, Niblett said May would be extremely wary of being seen as "Trump's poodle."
Organizers of Britain's nationwide protests are committed to staging some of the largest demonstrations since 2003, when hundreds of thousands hit the streets to oppose the war in Iraq.
Organizers say that from the moment Trump lands on British soil to the moment he leaves, he will be met by a "carnival of resistance." For some, that means flying a giant 'Trump Baby' balloon over Parliament Square. For others, it means shouting at places Trump will be visiting - Winfield House, Blenheim Palace, Chequers, Windsor Castle and his Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland. For others still, it means assembling in towns and cities up and down the country.
"I'm marching because of the disdain that Trump has shown for Britain, and because of his disgraceful treatment of minorities in the United States," said David Lammy, a leading member in the opposition Labour Party who will give a speech at Friday's rally in London.
"Whenever London experiences a tragedy, it's also the case that Trump licks his lips and tweets," he said.
He noted that Britain has rolled out the red carpet for other controversial political figures before, but "this is the leader of the free world, this is our closest ally in the global community."
Asad Rehman, 51, one of the organizers of the Stop Trump coalition, said, "Donald Trump will very much hear us and see us."
On Thursday night, campaigners are staging a "Keep Trump Awake" protest outside of the U.S. ambassador's London residence where the president and first lady will spend the night. They are encouraging people to bring "pots, drums and vuvuzelas."
Rehman said the protests were "not simply about Donald Trump, the man. It is actually an expression of opposition to the policies and politics he represents which has echoes across Europe and in the U.K. as well."
But Trump, the man, has also helped to "galvanize a large cross-section of people across multiple issues," he said.
The largest of all the protests will take place on Friday afternoon in London, where the streets are expected to be clogged with tens of thousands advocating for issues ranging from migrant rights to women's rights to worker rights. According to the Stop Trump coalition Facebook page, 61,000 people said they would attend.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a frequent Twitter foe of Trump, insisted that the planned protests were not "anti-American - far from it." But he said that the so-called special relationship means "speaking out when we think one side is not living up to the values we hold dear."
"The eyes of the world will be on London this week. It's an opportunity for our city to show our values, twinned with our world-renowned sense of humour," Khan wrote in the London Evening Standard newspaper.
Polls suggest Trump is unpopular in Britain - but he does have his fans.
Damien Smyth, 52, has temporarily changed the name of his pub from the Jameson to the Trump Arms, to honor the visit. There is no missing the London pub, which is festooned with American and British flags, and a sign above the entrance reading: "Welcome our American Friends."
Trump, Smyth said, has done "wonderful work since taking office," and has "made the world safe again - that's the most important thing, and has done tremendous work with the economy." Smyth, whose wife is from the Bronx, said that while "no one was perfect," he admired Trump for going into politics and said that other successful businessmen and women should do the same.
He said that the "silent majority" in Britain liked Trump, but "it's not cool to say you're a Trump supporter, these people are shunned."
This story was written by William Booth, Karla Adam and Josh Dawsey, all are reporters for The Washington Post.