LONDON - In more normal times an encounter between a U.S. president and members of Britain's royal family would be considered risk-free. But President Donald Trump's branding of Meghan Markle, the newest member of the royals, as "nasty" in an interview on the eve of his arrival for a state visit to America's closest ally has raised the stakes — and also some hackles among royal fans.
Even before the president's remark to a British tabloid there was concern among British officials of the possibility of a royal culture clash with Trump, and of something going awry in planned encounters with Prince Charles and his son Prince Harry, Megan Markle's husband.
Prince Harry, who is known to have a fiery character, will be among the royals accompanying Queen Elizabeth to greet President Trump Monday on his arrival in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and will co-host with the British monarch a lunch for the visitors. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, who will also be members of the royal meet-and-greet party, are slated to have tea with the American leader later in the day.
Not that anyone expects a "diplomatic incident" - envoy-speak for a hot-headed argument. "The royal family have a lot of experience to forestall any rift - they will be politeness itself, but I do expect some members will be a bit standoffish," said a source close to the royal household, who asked not to be identified. "The other course of action, of course, is that they might go over-the-top in public friendliness - to make a point that way," he added.
Prince Charles, Britain's future monarch, is a passionate environmentalist and has made no secret of his disapproval of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord.
Climate change is a topic the Prince has campaigned about for more than four decades and those close to Britain's heir apparent say he will be keen to talk with President Trump about the issue if an opening arises.
"One thing he won't do is broach the subject unless the American president does — that would be a breach of protocol as it is up to the visiting head of state to decide on topics for discussion," says a former aide to the heir apparent. "But if it comes up the Prince won't hold back on his climate change concerns," he said.
Meghan Markle will not to be in attendance for any events involving the royal family this week - on the official grounds that she is still on maternity leave from royal duties. Markle has previously called Trump "divisive" and "misogynistic."
Markle's pre-marriage political activism always worried Buckingham Palace aides, who feared it might become a liability once she was a member of the royal family.
In his remarks Saturday to Britain's Sun tabloid, the president branded Markle as "nasty" for her sharp social-media criticism of him during the 2016 presidential election campaign. U.S. officials say Trump was merely defending himself and that his description of her shouldn't be taken literally. And they are highlighting his words of encouragement for Markle, who he also dubbed the "American princess."
President Trump denied subsequently his remark about Markle, tweeting: “I never called Meghan Markle ‘nasty.’ Made up by the Fake News Media, and they got caught cold!” But the Sun reporter who conducted the interview — his second with Trump — posted the audio, although “nasty” could have meant “mean” or “critical” in the context, U.S, officials pointed out.
Asked for his thoughts on her joining Britain's royal family, Trump told the Sun tabloid "It is nice, and I am sure she will do excellently. She will be very good. I hope she does [succeed]."
But Trump's remarks ahead of his Britain visit about onetime actress Meghan Markle, now known in Britain as the Duchess of Sussex, almost overshadowed his equally robust and norm-breaking backing of Boris Johnson as Theresa May's successor in remarks to the White House press crops and in newspaper interviews.
Although Trump shied away from a formal endorsement of Johnson, one of a dozen Conservative lawmakers running in a leadership contest to succeed the Brexit-fouled May, his straying deep into domestic political territory is being seen here as a breach of protocol, although one many had expected he wouldn't feel restrained from making.
Asked by Britain's Sky News whether Trump, who has been a cheerleader for Britain's proposed break with the European Union, should refrain from praising Brexit leaders such as Johnson during a politically tumultuous period in Britain, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: "The president will do what the president wants."
Within hours of Bolton's comment, another interview by the U.S. president, this time with the Britain's Sunday Times added to the impression that Trump is ready to mount a running commentary during his visit on his thoughts about who should succeed May and what what should happen with Brexit.
In his interview with the newspaper he again praised Johnson and Nigel Farage, the leader of the newly-formed Brexit Party. He said Farage should lead Britain's Brexit negotiations. "Think how well they would do if they did," Trump said, adding that Britain should be prepared to break with the EU. "If you don't get the deal you want, if you don't get a fair deal, then you walk away," he said.
Also, Trump said he would have "to know" Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn before authorizing sharing highly sensitive U.S. intelligence, if he ever became Britain's prime minister. He also warned the Labour leader, who is boycotting the state banquet for Trump on Monday, to "get along with the U.S." if he wanted Britain to continue to benefit from American military and intelligence support.
The American leader's interventions aren't entirely unexpected. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic had hoped for a strife-free three-day visit, one almost exclusively focused - at least publicly - on the 75th commemoration of D-Day. But what one Downing Street aide described as "grenade-throwing" by Trump even before landing in the country is adding to the controversy over his trip.
Senior politicians from all of Britain's main parties have urged Trump to avoid commenting on domestic British affairs once he's in Britain - especially because Britain is in political turmoil with a feverish Conservative leadership race underway and with future Brexit policy hanging in the balance. The country is evenly split over whether to leave the EU, although recent polls suggest a re-run Brexit referendum would likely see a thin majority vote to remain a member of the bloc.
Downing Street had been braced for what one British official told VOA was "always going to be a challenging week with the president pushing his America First special relationship." He says the substantive issues will be about Iran and the U.S. trade confrontation with China. And for Britain a key post-Brexit issue is securing a trade deal with the U.S. to help make up for some of the trade losses the country will incur because of leaving the EU's free-trade bloc.
"We don't want to get distracted by the the President's riffs, which in some ways are delivered to test his interlocutors and put them on the defensive before he arrives," he added. "It isn't unusual for Trump to throw grenades before his visits, which then go smoothly once he lands," he said.