Six months into his term as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the UK, and newly installed south of the river in a fortress-like embassy, Woody Johnson is enjoying himself.
“I’m loving it,” he tells me, in his first interview with a business newspaper since arriving in London last August.
At a reception for journalists in the old Grosvenor Square embassy last summer, Johnson said that once we got to know Donald Trump, we’d learn to love him. There’s little sign of such affection having emerged since then, but Johnson has lost none of his enthusiasm for being Trump’s man
in London, insisting that he could be the greatest President since Ronald Reagan.
He’s keen to hammer home the economic success story unfolding back at home: “Take a look at what the President has accomplished in one short year – record job creation, record consumer confidence, record employment.”
He bristles at the idea that any of this would be undermined by the consequences of Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminium imports but is unable to offer much of a defence for the policy, instead saying we should “take a look down the road rather than be distracted by these various bumps in the road… we don’t know what the final answer is on steel, I don’t know how exactly this is going to resolve itself or what the motivations are, or how it will be structured.”
Won’t these tariffs hurt US consumers and manufacturers? “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Will there be an exemption for the EU, or the UK? “Maybe yes, maybe no.” It’s clear that the tariff policy is still being worked out back in Washington, and the talking points haven’t yet landed in America’s embassies across the world. Johnson declines to respond when I quote Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, who labelled Trump’s tariff policies “absurd.”
Nevertheless, Fox is making the UK’s concerns known in Washington. Furthermore, it will be Fox who leads the charge for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal, something Johnson describes as “key for both countries”.
Woody Johnson (Source: Greg Sigston/City A.M.)
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, intervened during the referendum campaign to say that the UK would be “at the back of the queue” for a trade deal if it left the EU, and Johnson is keen to stress that “there’s a different attitude now, the UK will be at the front of the line, as soon as we’re legally allowed to do it”. What this line might lead to, though, is less clear, given the America First strategy being pursued by the Trump administration. Indeed, the only detail Johnson offers on what a trade deal might look like is that “there’s quite a bit of work going on in the US, we have assets to protect, companies to protect”. This doesn’t sound like the warm embrace of free trade.
While trade negotiations are a way off, US companies in the UK are facing up to the reality of Brexit, but Johnson says they’re more at ease with the situation than they were even six months ago. “The emotion that I saw when I first got here has lessened dramatically, the negative emotion [surrounding Brexit]”. The corporate attitude is now, instead, “we represent our shareholders, our investors, let’s get on with it and make the best of this situation.”
Beyond Brexit, the US-UK security and intelligence relationship remains “robust and strong, closer than any other nation”. But Johnson won’t be drawn on discussing the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, saying only that “this situation will be handled by the Prime Minister, you’re going to handle these kinds of issues yourself.”
Surely our American allies are working closely with the UK authorities? “The President and the national security adviser will look at this and see what the appropriate response from the US is, if any.” I ask if he shares the view expressed by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, that Russia is “a rogue state.” He’s reluctant to wade into this, saying “I’m not going to really characterise Russia as anything… we know what the problems are between our countries, the President is well aware of what’s going on.”
Push too hard on security or trade policy and Johnson will shoot a furtive glance at his media team. I suppose it’s the role of a diplomat to keep his cards close to his chest. On life in the capital he is much more open, saying “the restaurants in London are surprisingly good” – high praise from a New York billionaire. “I think you could call London the culinary capital.”