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White House: US-British Ties Rise Above Any Single Personality

  • Ken Schwartz

FILE - With then-British Prime Minister David Cameron in the background, Boris Johnson, then London's mayor, speaks at a campaign rally for a Conservative mayoral candidate in London, May 3, 2016. Johnson is new PM Theresa May's pick to be foreign minister.

FILE - With then-British Prime Minister David Cameron in the background, Boris Johnson, then London's mayor, speaks at a campaign rally for a Conservative mayoral candidate in London, May 3, 2016. Johnson is new PM Theresa May's pick to be foreign minister.

U.S. relations with Britain transcend any single personality, including whoever is the foreign secretary in London, the White House said Thursday.

Spokesman Josh Earnest was responding to a question about how the Obama administration felt about British Prime Minister Theresa May's appointment of Boris Johnson, a controversial and outspoken political figure, as her foreign minister, in charge of all foreign policy issues.

Johnson, the former mayor of London, was a leader of the Brexit campaign that ended in British voters' decision last month to break away from the European Union. He was sharply critical of President Barack Obama for urging Britons to vote to remain in the EU.

Obama telephoned May on Thursday to congratulate her and repeat his commitment to deepening U.S.-British ties. Earnest said the White House was confident that the special U.S. relationship with Britain could get stronger "irrespective of specific personalities."

"Choices that are made by the British government about who will represent them on an international stage are rightly choices that should be made by British leaders and British leaders alone," Earnest said. "The president certainly looks forward to working with Prime Minister May" during the six months left in his term.

Johnson, a prolific author, wrote a controversial article earlier this year suggesting that Obama's Kenyan ancestry, and the legacy of Britain's colonial rule in Africa until the mid-20th century, prompted an anti-British attitude by the U.S. president.

FILE - U.S. President George W. Bush inspects a bust of Winston Churchill presented by British Ambassador Christopher Meyer in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 16, 2001. The bust was on loan from Tony Blair, then the prime minister of Britain.

FILE - U.S. President George W. Bush inspects a bust of Winston Churchill presented by British Ambassador Christopher Meyer in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 16, 2001. The bust was on loan from Tony Blair, then the prime minister of Britain.

Churchill bust

The new British foreign secretary, who actually was born in the United States, also speculated that anti-British feeling prompted the removal from the Oval Office of a bust of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a staunch defender of the British Empire, after Obama took over as president from George W. Bush in January 2009. In fact, the Churchill bust had been lent to Bush by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with the understanding that it would be returned to Britain after Bush's term ended.

Visiting London three months ago, Obama laughed off the notion that he removed the image of Churchill from his office. "I love Winston Churchill," he said at the time, and noted there was another bust of the legendary British wartime leader still on display in the White House, in a different but prominent location.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held his first official discussion with Johnson by telephone Thursday. Spokesmen said the two pledged to work closely together as NATO allies to meet global challenges. Kerry stressed U.S. support for a sensible and measured approach to the process of Britain's separation from the EU.

Johnson said he was cheered by Kerry's message, and he told reporters that Britain's withdrawal from the EU “does not mean in any sense leaving Europe.”

"There is a massive difference between leaving the EU and our relations with Europe," Johnson added, "which if anything, I think, are going to be intensified and built up at an intergovernmental level."

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