In his first White House meeting with a major foreign leader, Donald Trump asked Theresa May: “Why isn’t Boris Johnson the prime minister? Didn’t he want the job?”
At the time, the notoriously ambitious Johnson was foreign secretary. He became prime minister two years later, in 2019, after May was forced to resign.
May’s response to the undiplomatic question is not recorded in Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, a new book by the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman which will be published next week. The Guardian obtained a copy.
Eagerly awaited, Haberman’s book has been extensively trailed. Sensational stories revealed include startling instances of Trump’s racism and transphobia and his attempt to order the bombing of drug labs in Mexico.
Trump’s presidency would begin, proceed and end in chaos but in January 2017, Britain’s May was seen to have achieved an important diplomatic success by being the first foreign leader to visit Trump in the White House.
Describing the meeting, Haberman cites “extensive notes of the discussion” as she reports that “for May, getting Trump to focus on any issue was impossible”.
The new president, Haberman writes, bragged about the White House and talked about both the size of the crowd for his inauguration and the Women’s March, a huge national protest against him.
Trump also treated May to a discourse on abortion, a hugely divisive issue in the US but less so in Britain.
“Abortion is such a tough issue,” Trump said, unprompted. “Some people are pro-life, some people are pro-choice. Imagine if some animals with tattoos raped your daughter and she got pregnant?”
Haberman says Trump pointed to his vice-president, Mike Pence, saying “He’s the really tough one on abortion”, then asked May “whether she was pro-life”.
Again, May’s response is not reported.
Trump then asked about Johnson. The former London mayor’s ambition to be prime minister was well-known, the defection of a key ally, Michael Gove, having torpedoed his hopes of succeeding David Cameron after the Brexit vote in 2016, effectively handing the job to May.
Trump, Haberman writes, told the prime minister it sounded like she had a “team of rivals” – the title of a famous book about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet – but said he could not pursue such a course.
“John Kasich wanted to work for me after the election, but I couldn’t do that,” Trump said, referring to the former Ohio governor who opposed him in 2016 and after.
Haberman says Northern Ireland was also discussed, although Trump “appeared to get bored” and instead talked about an offshore wind farm near one of his Scottish golf courses.
He also reportedly asked if immigration had been a major factor in the Brexit vote and criticized European leaders.
Telling May “crime is way up in Germany”, Trump brought up rape a second time, claiming “women are getting raped all over the place” and predicting Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, would lose an election that year.
In this instance May’s response is reported: Haberman says the prime minister “contradicted” Trump, “saying that Merkel, in fact, was Europe’s best politician”.
Elsewhere, Haberman reports that Trump called Merkel “that bitch”.
In the Oval Office, Haberman says, May pivoted to “one of her primary interests for the conversation – sanctions against Russia and whether Trump planned to discuss them with [Vladimir] Putin”.
Told by aides he was scheduled to speak to the Russian president the next day, Trump complained that he had not yet done so, cited Russia’s nuclear arsenal and said: “I need to talk to this guy … this isn’t the Congo.”
Haberman also reports what happened when the president and prime minister left the Oval Office and took the steps to the White House colonnade: “appearing to need to steady himself”, Trump took May by the hand.
The move caused controversy. Citing Guardian reporting, Haberman recounts the prime minister’s “bewilderment” and a call to her husband to “explain why she was holding another man’s hand”.
“He just grabbed it,” May told aides. “What can I do?”