Trump’s London embassy tweet: Everything wrong with US President’s midnight post about not visiting the UK

Andrew Griffin
Friday 12 January 2018 11:26 GMT
The newly built U.S. Embassy can be seen from across the River Thames in Nine Elms in London
The newly built U.S. Embassy can be seen from across the River Thames in Nine Elms in London (REUTERS/Peter Nicholls)

Donald Trump has announced that he will not be visiting London this year after all. But it's not quite so clear why.

The President has sent a controversial and divisive tweet about the fact that he's not coming because he's upset about the deal the Americans made for their new embassy building, which was he was scheduled to open during his trip. He didn't want to bless it with his presence, he suggested, and so cancelled the entire thing.

In a tweet posted at midnight, he wrote: "Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!"

But there are a series of problems with that tweet – at least six, at our count. Here they all are:

"Reason I canceled my trip to London"

This, of course, is the reason Mr Trump sent the tweet: rumours are abounding that the visit was actually cancelled because Trump was disappointed in the amount of ceremony and events that would take place when he arrived. That was referenced by mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who said Mr Trump "got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance" and referenced the widespread protests that were likely to greet the presidential visit.

Who is actually right isn't clear. But there is good reason to doubt the President's account: among other things, the visit has been planned for months, and none of the reasons cited by Mr Trump are actually new.

"I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold" the embassy

The Obama Administration didn't make the decision to sell the embassy, though the deal was finished when Obama was in office. The move to leave the old embassy began in 2008, under George W Bush, as can be seen from the fact that the embassy itself posted a news release at the time.

Even the Bush administration didn't really make that decision, though, since it wasn't entirely theirs to sell. The US didn't own the embassy but leased it from the Duke of Westminster – a strange arrangement that made it unique among US embassies and led to protracted and often fractious negotiations as the Americans looked to sort it out.

"Perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London"

The old US embassy is located in Grosvenor Square, at the centre of Mayfair, where it has occupied two different addresses since it arrived in 1938. It's true that it is one of London's most upscale and posh areas – seen in the fact that the old building is expected to become a luxury hotel when it's vacated by the Americans.

Still, "best located" is probably a classic Trumpian boast. Most of the rest of the international embassies in London are located on the other side of Hyde Park, towards Kensington. Many of them are directly overlooking the park and some are next-door-neighbours with Kensington Palace, the official residence of royals including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; it's hardly a down-at-heel area.

It might be that Mr Trump prefers the east side of Hyde Park, and the opportunity to walk down into the West End and London's trendy Soho district. But he's probably at least exaggerating to make a point.

Ultimately, how nice the location is didn't really matter anyway – the problem has always been that the Mayfair location made it a prime target for a terror attack. As security has been upgraded in response to that worry, neighbours have complained that it is unsightly. For years, locals have been arguing it was a bad – or at least unsafe – place to have an embassy, and it's those concerns that are thought to have contributed to the US's decision to move from the old location.

Sold for "peanuts"

The price that the old building went for was never disclosed. But estimates put the value of the sale to the investment arm of the Qatari royal family at about £500 million, roughly in line with the expected cost of the new US embassy building at the time, though considerably more than it actually cost, as we'll get to shortly.

The President's expertise in real investment and his claims to be good at making deals might have enabled him to get more for the sale. But it's hard to describe half a billion pounds as "peanuts".

"An off location"

Like the argument over whether or not Grosvenor Square is the best place to have an embassy, you can argue about whether Nine Elms is an "off" or "on" location for an embassy based on what you think of the future of London housing and what you look for in an area. But even if you don't like the area around the south bank of the Thames, it's not fair to suggest that nothing is going on.

The area for now is rife with cranes and other building work, putting together not just the US embassy but a range of different housing and business buildings. They include the revamping of the old Battersea power station, and a building that will have a specially installed sky pool on its top allowing swimmers to view the US embassy and London beyond.

What's more, the new embassy's location and the space around it allows for all kinds of anti-terror measures that would never have been possible at the old place. The high-tech protections at the Nine Elms building include a special moat that has been built around it – there would never have been either the space or the support from neighbours to install something so modern in the more staid environs of Mayfair.

Mr Trump may have used his real estate and investment knowledge and decided this was a bad bet, and that may be what he means by an off location. But the area looks something like the parts of Manhattan that he got rich upgrading – taking a once largely dilapidated area, using lots of money to build and upgrade it, and then selling it to wealthy buyers.

"For 1.2 billion dollars"

Mr Trump may have extra insight into how much the building cost. But he may also be exaggeration: the embassy has in fact been reported to have cost about $1 billion – and that high price was largely to fund the extra defences against terror that the building needed, which was the real reason for moving it in the first place.

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