May’s eagerness to be the first foreign leader to shake that short-fingered hand, the scramble to catch up with Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, gave off a strong whiff of desperation.
Trump managed to get through it without insulting an entire ethnic group, trashing a democratic norm or declaring war, any of which might have diverted attention from May’s big moment. He was on best behaviour, diligently reading the script that had been written for him, attesting to the “deep bond” that connects Britain and the US. May received all the assurances she craved that her country’s relationship with the US remains “special”.
However, these are not normal times. May and her team will be pleased with the optics and indeed some of the substance – artfully, May got Trump to confirm, on camera, that he is “100% behind Nato” – but the underlying truth is that this dash to Washington was mortifying.
Desperation is a scent Trump understands. What he lacks in book smarts, he makes up for in alpha male gamesmanship. His lifelong training was in real estate, an area in which there is rarely such thing as a win-win deal: the more you get, the more I pay.
He will have seen May as that most desperate of creatures: the housebuyer who rashly sold her old house before she had found a new one. Having tossed away Britain’s keys to the European single market, she will soon be homeless – and Trump knows it. For all the niceties – May’s shrewd deployment of a royal invitation for a state visit and her compliment to the president on his “stunning election victory”, flattery which saw Trump glow a brighter shade of orange – he will have seen May as a sucker who needs to make a deal. And he will look forward to naming his price.