Starmer’s struggle to forge ties with Trump’s inner circle

As Sir Keir Starmer makes plain that he recognises his need to establish a relationship with America’s former-and-possibly-future President, the UK’s potential next leader may face challenges establishing connections with the Republican candidate and his inner circle in a Washington still reeling from Donald Trump’s resurgence on the campaign trail.

On both sides of the Atlantic, bookies currently expect the Labour leader and Trump to be leading their respective countries this time next year.

If – as seems possible – Trump disposes of Joe Biden at the ballot box in November, 12 months from now he will have just sworn the Presidential oath. The moment he sits down in the Oval Office, Whitehall will wonder how long it will take before he picks up the phone and calls No 10.

Getting a high-ranking position on Trump’s call list may hinge on the efforts Starmer and members of his team make now to establish relationships with Trump-world. Both Starmer and David Lammy, his possible pick as Foreign Secretary, have indicated that in light of the prevailing political winds, they understand the importance of reaching out across the Atlantic and forging cross-party ties that in large measure do not currently exist.

Lammy has made it clear a future Labour government would work with Trump, as with any other administration. Party sources acknowledged that, as the sister party, the Democrats are naturally more aligned with Labour than the Republicans. But they stressed that even though they would expect areas of disagreement between a Starmer and Trump government, maintaining a healthy relationship as allies would always be the priority.

As the meetings between Lammy and leading Republicans indicate, Labour is actively preparing for the possibility of a Trump administration by seeking to build relationships now.

Lammy recently acknowledged consulting with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as part of ongoing efforts to crack the Trumpian code.

But one former top Republican official told i that Pompeo is an odd choice of interlocutor, not least because so far he has not even endorsed Trump for the Presidency (a fact that Trump assuredly has not overlooked). Pompeo abandoned his own plans to seek the Presidency last April. Exiting the field, he took a swipe at Trump, claiming that “Americans are thirsting for people making arguments, not just tweets”.

If Pompeo Avenue won’t necessarily lead Labour’s front bench to Trump, what other roads are available? Lammy counts former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as a friend, but again, her copybook is blotted. Rice played a pivotal role in 2016 advising Trump to make several high-profile appointments. She championed – among others – former secretary of state Rex Tillerson. When Trump fired Tillerson in 2019, the president branded him “dumb as a rock” and “totally ill-prepared and ill-equipped to be secretary of state”. It’s hard to imagine Rice successfully whispering into Trump’s ear about the benefits of having a chat with Starmer.

Nadia Schadlow, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, is also reportedly a Lammy interlocutor and may prove a more useful conduit. She exited the Trump administration in April 2018 due to her proximity to ousted national security adviser Lieutenant General HR McMaster, but has carefully charted her post-Trump life and is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank particularly hawkish towards both Iran and China.

She speaks only rarely and cautiously in public about her times in the turbulent first Trump administration. Were she to navigate a return to the White House next year, any discussions she has with Lammy today may pay dividends later.

But the biggest problem facing Starmer and Lammy is that the old rules in Washington simply no longer apply. In the pre-Trump era, when Tony Blair sought to establish a relationship with George W Bush, there were established political and diplomatic channels that could be exploited, and quiet conversations that could yield results despite the ideological chasm separating Labour from the Republicans.

Former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Daniel Fried – who was US ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000 – was among the Bush officials who birthed that bilateral process. He attended the first meeting between Blair and Bush at Camp David in February 2001 and told i that it was “the beginning of a personal and professional relationship across ideological lines”.

“Both sides wanted to make this work,” Ambassador Fried – now with The Atlantic Council – recalls. “Blair was attuned to George W Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ before 9/11 and before the Iraq War, and that gave them considerable strategic common ground.”

Fried is dubious that similar openings exist in Trump world for Starmer to exploit, and other observers agree that there may be limited capacity for effective outreach.

“The so-called Republican establishment has been sidelined” says PJ Crowley, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in the Obama administration. “I’m sure that embassies here in Washington are scouring their list of contacts trying to figure out what’s going on”, he says, arguing it’s “an unknown” how detailed Trump’s foreign policy preparations are for government, nor his readiness for overtures from lawmakers overseas.

Crowley notes that some conservative think tanks have retained ties with Trump, along with Republicans in Congress who hope eventually to join a second Trump administration. But he cautions “the lifespan in Trump-world is not long. You could be on the inside in January, and on the outside in August… at the candidate’s whim”. That, of course, complicates life for UK politicians looking for the magic key to the Trump kingdom.

A senior figure in the Theresa May government said the challenge of preparing for a Trump presidency centres around trying to second-guess an unpredictable leader and – at times – rudderless administration. This not only posed a challenge on a public level – never quite knowing what intervention Trump would make on an issue – but also on a private level in briefings between US and UK aides.

The source said it was hard to get a reliable policy answer from White House staff because they never seemed to know what the president wanted. “He is effectively a law unto himself. He is hard to predict, he can be hard to read, hard to reason with. In that sense, the diplomatic picture is really tricky,” the former official said.

Trump’s inner circle is a roiling cauldron, with the former president insisting he will offer no room in his second administration to any moderates or policy experts who fail to share his myopic worldview. Labour faces unpalatable choices, amid reports that the former president’s “loyalty-first” Cabinet will include extremists like Steve Bannon, former Pentagon official Kash Patel, former Fox News star Tucker Carlson and far-right luminary Stephen Miller.

None of them is likely to enjoy a quiet, fruitful conversation with Starmer about the vital importance of doubling down on international aid to Ukraine, the strengthening of the Nato alliance, or the critical importance of a post-Brexit trade deal between the US and UK. On no issue vital to the bilateral relationship do they seem likely to find any common cause.

Adding to the complexity, Trump has never evinced much interest in Britain beyond his personal admiration for the Royal Family (a trait inherited from his mother) and concerns about his own business interests including his golf club in Ayrshire. Nigel Farage remains the Brit he most likes to consult, and was a notable guest at Trump’s victory rally in Iowa earlier this month.

Farage has previously influenced the former president’s view on – among others – Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. In November 2016, Trump voiced backing for Farage to become Britain’s Ambassador to the United States. The two men have met privately on numerous occasions in the intervening years, and – unfortunately for Labour – Farage may be the Briton who can most effectively bend Trump’s ear.

In such a mercurial environment, Fried cautions that Starmer will find himself dealing with “a different calibre of people” from those Republicans who rubbed shoulders with Blair.

“To the degree that Trump has a grand strategy at all,” he says, “it’s a grand strategy moving in the direction of the pre-1941 American isolationist movement… indifferent to the rise of Hitler, and indifferent to the plight of the British…. this is not a tradition on which a lot of common ground can be built.”

Crowley also cautions that it may be too early for Starmer and Lammy to make much headway. “It’s unclear who will populate Trump’s policy team,” he says, warning “careful navigation” is required.

Outreach to Trump also runs the risk of irritating President Joe Biden, who insists he will remain at the helm for four more years. White House officials may take a dim view of too much proximity to the Trump team, fearing that it indicates an expectation on Labour’s part of change in Washington that the President is determined to head off.

There’s also the risk of even indirect contact blowing up in Starmer’s face. For the moment, the Leader of the Opposition is not on Trump’s radar screen. But as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has discovered, once Trump takes a disliking to a prominent Labour Party figure, he’s like an attack dog with a social media bone.

For Labour, the worst-case scenario would see Trump using his social media blowtorch to turn on Starmer in the middle of an autumn election campaign.

Additional reporting by Chloe Chaplain