LONDON—Peacetime visits by United States presidents are usually celebratory affairs. They’re opportunities for host countries to show off a little, to polish the silver and bring out the marching bands, to assert their place in the world and in the eyes of the United States. President Donald Trump’s visit to Britain—which kicked off Thursday afternoon and will include meetings with Prime Minister Theresa May, a gala dinner with business leaders at Winston Churchill’s birthplace, and a tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, before the president heads off to one of his golf courses in Scotland for the weekend—could not be more different.
And it could not have come at a worse time. Announced last year and planned so that Trump will largely avoid central London and the big anti-Trump demonstrations expected, the visit is less a triumphant celebration of the “special relationship” between two long-standing allies and more an exercise in damage control. May’s conservative government is in turmoil after the resignation this week of two key cabinet members, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a Trump admirer, over differences in how to handle the colossal mess that is Brexit. Trump has been shaking up NATO and threatening a trade war with Europe. On Wednesday, England flamed out of the World Cup. Last week, a British citizen died after being exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, collateral damage after the assassination attempt on a former Russian spy, which the British government says is the work of Russia. (Trump is to meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.)