US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a discreet visit to the new US embassy in London on Monday, after President Donald Trump cancelled plans to open it himself following a series of rows.
Tillerson bucked tradition by not holding a formal meet-and-greet at the new embassy, which the State Department said was due to the current shutdown of the US government over a budget impasse in Congress.
But even before the shutdown, the State Department had already played down Tillerson’s visit to the embassy, which opened last week, because of controversy over Trump’s refusal to inaugurate the new building.
The president said he was unhappy at the cost and location of the new embassy, a futuristic cuboid building surrounded by a moat.
But the decision came after a series of rows that have damaged the so-called “special relationship” between the two nations and after it became clear the visit would be met with mass protests.
“The purpose of the trip is to underscore our commitment to the transatlantic alliance,” a State Department spokesman said.
“First stop is the United Kingdom, where the secretary will reaffirm the US-UK special relationship.”
– ‘Bad deal’ –
Tillerson posed for photographs before being shown around the new building.
Trump had been due to inaugurate the building in February, but cancelled the visit, tweeting: “having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
The new building is slightly outside central London in an area south of the River Thames which is being regenerated, unlike its predecessor, which was in the plush heart of the British capital.
US ambassador Woody Johnson brushed off Trump’s criticism of the building, telling reporters: “The embassy actually is going to really work.”
When asked whether there would be a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the ambassador added: “At some point we’re going to do it, but there’s no urgency to that. We’ll do it when the time is right.”
Trump has yet to visit Britain since taking office a year ago, and has been involved in rows with the government over issues including trade and his retweeting of a video posted by a British far-right group.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also said he “would not be welcome” in the city, suggesting there could be widespread protests.
Tillerson visited Downing Street for talks with Prime Minister Theresa May and later met Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at his official residence, where they were due to discuss Yemen, Syria and the Iran deal.
Ahead of May’s meeting with Tillerson, the British premier’s spokesman said she would tell him that London was “fully committed to the deal and also to working with our allies to counter Iran’s destabilising regional activity”.
Boris Johnson wrote in The Sunday Telegraph newspaper that Trump should be welcomed to Britain because the country’s ties with the US are vital for security and provide the UK’s “single most extraordinary economic relationship”.
Trump “is the elected president of the world’s most powerful democracy” and resisting his visit to the UK risks “damaging the national interest”, Johnson added.
May is due to meet with Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos late this week, but the plans could be thrown into disarray by the US shutdown.
Tillerson’s mini-tour of Europe will continue with a visit to Paris on Tuesday.