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U.K. now sees ‘special relationship’ with U.S. as not so special

The term “special relationship” was used in 1946 by Winston Churchill to describe Anglo-American ties and was evoked by Prime Minister Theresa May as she flew to meet Donald Trump in January. It is not so special now.


The alliance faces its gravest test in years because of a breakdown in trust over leaked intelligence on the Manchester attack, according to two senior U.K. government officials. May quietly approached Trump during a family photo at the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday to express her concern.

The delicate manner in which she did so serves to highlight the political dilemma for the U.K. leader, who raised the national terrorism threat to the highest “critical” level two weeks from a general election: May needs Trump more than ever as she seeks to forge a new place for Britain outside the European Union.

The U.K. is furious that American officials gave away the name of the suspected suicide bomber, and images of his improvised explosive device to U.S. media, while British police race to prevent further attacks from the same network. The free exchange of top secret intelligence is one of the linchpins that seal the bond between the allies.

Privately, members of May’s team are fuming, and conflicted. It is impossible to trust the U.S. with secret information if details appear in The New York Times 24 hours later, said one senior British official. The U.K. doesn’t want a trade war in intelligence sharing but Americans must now tighten up its procedures, the official added.

“We have strong relations with the U.S., our closest partner, and that is of course built on trust,” May said as she arrived in Brussels for the NATO summit. “Part of that is knowing intelligence can be shared confidently and I will make clear to President Trump that intelligence shared with law enforcement agencies must be secure.”

The leaks prompted a rare public rebuke from May, but ties between London and Washington have been strained for months, according to British officials.

May and Trump agreed when they met at the White House in January to push forward with plans for a new trade agreement to be signed as soon as Britain quits the EU in 2019.

But British ministers have been dismayed by Trump’s protectionist rhetoric on trade since he took office, and are unsure how the talks on a new U.K.-U.S. accord are likely to proceed, a third official said, speaking before the current spat.

U.K. officials can’t understand why the president makes statements such as all America’s trade deals are “bad” while claiming he wants a new one with Britain.

Trump’s domestic difficulties have also had a knock-on impact on relations with Britain. Normal diplomatic interaction with the U.K.’s closest ally has been difficult since January because Trump has made such slow progress in appointing people to 5,000 key posts in his administration, the official said.

More broadly, May’s government is frustrated with the way Trump is running his administration. Before Trump was elected, and before May became prime minister, her co-chief of staff described him as a “chump.”

In his address to NATO delegates in Brussels on Thursday, the president condemned the Manchester bombing, described the terrorists as “losers” and called for a moment’s silence out of respect for the victims.

In a written statement, Trump called the alleged leaks “deeply troubling” and said he was asking the Justice Department and other agencies to review the matter.

The Manchester bomber was driven by what he saw as unjust treatment of Arabs in Britain, a relative said Thursday, confirming he made a final phone call in which he pleaded, “Forgive me.”

Salman Abedi was particularly upset by the killing last year of a Muslim friend whose death he believed went unnoticed by “infidels” in the U.K., said the relative.

“Why was there no outrage for the killing of an Arab and a Muslim in such a cruel way?” she asked. “Rage was the main reason,” for the blast, which killed 22.

Britain’s politicians resumed their election campaigning in earnest on Friday with national security in the spotlight. May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had suspended campaigning after Monday’s bombing.

Eight suspects were currently in detention on U.K. soil in connection with the blast, for which the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, while police in Libya have detained the father and brother of Salman Abedi.

Washington’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson was to visit London on Friday in an expression of solidarity.

Mugiejor A

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