LONDON – A day before President Donald Trump’s arrival here, leaders of Europe’s rough-edged populist movement quietly filed into a five-star hotel in London’s Mayfair district, unnoticed by summer tourists enjoying their clotted cream.
Louis Aliot, a right-wing French politician and boyfriend of the French populist firebrand Marine Le Pen, walked through the lobby to a conference room tucked away behind the restaurant serving afternoon tea. So did Nigel Farage, the right-wing British politician and Brexit mastermind whom the local tabloids say is “banned” by his government from meeting with President Donald Trump during his visit.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of a prominent London conservative think tank, lingered by the concierge booth as he discussed ways Trump’s British fans can offer him a warm greeting amid planned protests and a giant inflatable diapered Trump baby set to fly over the city. “We’re trying to tell the story that there is a strong well of support,” said Harris-Quinney.
They had all come to see Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had set up a bare war room, of sorts, in a conference room at the hotel to confer and conspire with leaders of Europe’s surging populist movement. Bannon’s goal, he said in a brief interview between meetings, was to help “contextualize Trump” for a European audience that hates him and a fiery tabloid media culture that he believes doesn’t give the American president a fair shake.
It was a reminder that Europe’s version of Trumpism is thriving — from England to France to Italy — even if Trump himself may not make much of a splash when he arrives here Thursday night.
The off-the-record meetings were unfolding quietly ahead of a presidential visit that seems likely to be overshadowed by even greater dramas than an unpredictable Donald Trump. The country has been obsessed with its soccer team’s fate in the World Cup, and will be dissecting and mourning its Wednesday defeat to Croatia in a semifinal match.
Trump will also arrive in the midst of a political crisis over the terms of England’s Brexit—the nickname for the 2016 referendum forcing its withdrawal from the EU—that could bring down Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.
He’s keeping a lower profile than visiting presidents usually do. Amid talk of blimps and protests in liberal London, the White House organized a light footprint visit to keep the president mostly out of central London, taking his meetings at Chequers and Blenheim Palace instead.
Those factors combined, on Wednesday, to make the city feel like the potentially tense visit—coming on the heels of a NATO summit Trump upended with angry shots at key allies—wasn’t really happening at all. None of the city’s tabloids featured Trump on their front pages. Inside their pages, detailed coverage of the actor George Clooney’s motor scooter accident got higher billing than Trump’s visit.
“Trump’s coming? Nobody knows that,” said a newspaper vendor, who refused to give his name. But even Trump’s allies agreed with his assessment.
“People are more interested in the World Cup than they are in Donald Trump,” Piers Morgan, the British television personality and a longtime Trump friend, said. “It’s helped distract attention. It’s been quite helpful to him that the focus is on the chaotic government and the World Cup.”
But Trumpism was still here in spirit at least in Mayfair, where Bannon was busy stirring the populist pot, even as May’s government wobbled over the fallout of a Brexit process that Trump has supported since he was a presidential candidate.
“Trump’s got a big group of support here, with Nigel and the hard Brexit crowd that has all worked together for years,” he said. “I’m here to be a surrogate on British media.”
Bannon was also set to appear on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show, which was broadcasting live from London, at 2 a.m. local time.
“Here, in terms of Brexit, they’re saying ‘hey, we’re up on the second year anniversary of this thing, and we’re still talking about half in half out,’” Bannon said. “We have to be bold. I think Trump coming here underscores the point that he’s about bold action.”
Bannon is new in his role of Trump surrogate: the president’s former chief strategist was fired from the White House last August, and suffered a hard break with the president, who distanced himself from Bannon after the publication of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a book by Michael Wolff, calling him “Sloppy Steve” and lobbing the worst epithet possible at him: leaker.
But between his Hannity appearance and his schedule of media interview with European outlets that Trump might watch, Bannon appeared to be in line for a potential comeback with Trump, who has few allies on this side of the Atlantic.
Bannon said he was supportive of Trump’s combative kick-off to the NATO summit in Brussels, where he pressed European allies to double their defense spending and accused Germany of being “captive to Russia” and paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Russia, “the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”
While Trump’s comments have been interpreted as an effort to weaken the alliance that has held allies together since World War II, Bannon insisted his former boss’s goal was quite the opposite.
“It’s not harsh rhetoric,” Bannon said. “It’s what I call a partners discussion. There’s no more happy talk. The reason he’s doing it is he wants the alliance to work.”
Despite the major distractions from Trump’s visit, his right-wing allies here were trying to counterprogram the planned protests.
Some planned to give interviews from a West Kensington pub that renamed itself “The Trump Arms” in honor of the president’s visit.
But even a diehard supporter admitted the timing could have been better.
“People ask me are you looking forward to Trump’s trip, I say, no because it’s ruining my viewing of the World Cup,” said Harris-Quinney. “I’d be over there in Russia if he were not coming. And the fact that the government is in disarray is a huge deal. It has all made this one of the most interesting weeks since the Brexit vote.”
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