Donald Trump has consistently supported Britain’s departure from the European Union. ‘Countries want their own identity,’ the president has said, ‘and the UK wanted its own identity.’ Indeed, Trump has been such a forceful advocate of the Leave position that he has announced that he should be called ‘MR BREXIT’. Trump has assured Britons that in a post-EU future they will have a loyal ally in the United States. ‘We’re going to do a very big trade deal – bigger than we’ve ever had with the UK,’ the president said this August. ‘At some point, they won’t have the obstacle of – they won’t have the anchor around their ankle, because that’s what they had.’
In the first major test of his loyalty to Britain, though, the president is failing, and his failure has unpleasant implications for supporters of Brexit.
This August, 19-year-old Harry Dunn was driving on a motorbike in the English county of Northamptonshire when he was struck by a car that was supposedly driving on the wrong side of the road. Mr Dunn, who has been described as a ‘bubbly and outgoing’ young man who ‘loved life’, passed away in hospital.
The driver of the car that struck Mr Dunn was allegedly a 42-year-old American woman named Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. Northamptonshire police reported that Mrs Sacoolas had ‘fully engaged’ with their investigation and told them she had ‘no plans’ to leave the country. Subsequently, though, she fled to the United States. Civilised words cannot express the sheer cowardice and irresponsibility of this decision.
President Trump has refused to waive diplomatic immunity and allow Sacoolas to be returned to the United Kingdom. Both the foreign secretary Dominic Raab and prime minister Boris Johnson have appealed to Trump to change his mind in this awful, exceptional case, but he has refused and, embarrassingly, accidentally revealed to the world that he would not give up Mrs Sacoolas, when he allowed his notes to be seen by photographers.
‘In my experience,’ the British prime minister has said, ‘America is very, very reluctant to allow its nationals to be tried overseas, and is absolutely ruthless in enforcing the code of diplomatic immunity.’
But why? It would be understandable if Britain had rigged courts and cruel and unusual punishments but as my friend Charlie Peters has written for National Review, Britain has fair courts and, if anything, lighter punishments for dangerous driving than the US. Trump is not just sending a message to Americans that he will support them; he is sending a message to Americans that he will support them when they shirk their most basic moral responsibilities. He was less sympathetic to the American basketball players who were arrested in China in 2017, and all they had been charged with was shoplifting.
In his inimitable style, President Trump has offered his sympathy to the Dunn family but said it can be confusing ‘driving on the opposite side of the road’, and ‘it happens’. Of course it literally happens. A lot of things happen. But it happens to people who are being very, very stupid, and if you are suspected of causing loss of life through catastrophic stupidity, you have a duty to accept judicial proceedings.
The pain of Dunn’s family is, of course, unimaginable. They will never see, or hear, or talk to their son again. What is more, the woman suspected of being his killer has fled truth, and justice, and finality. Mr and Mrs Dunn are traveling to the United States with the hope of speaking to the media and even the president.
If President Trump persists in shielding Sacoolas it will represent a betrayal of Britain, both because he is standing in the way of justice and because he is demonstrating how little its supposed independence can be worth when a stronger power refuses to respect its valid interests. He talks a big game about the nation state, but looks as if he will not lift a finger to help one of his most significant allies secure its basic right to justice for its citizens.
The Conservatives, preparing for a post-Brexit future, have been reduced to scrambling for pathetic crumbs of comfort for Britons. Andrea Leadsom MP, who represents South-Northamptonshire and is secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, has posted on Twitter:
‘After the tragic death of Harry Dunn outside RAF Croughton earlier this year, I am pleased that @mycountycouncil and @SNorthantsC have committed to extending road signs around the American base, making clear which side of the road to drive on.’
How reassuring. Americans will be reminded of perhaps the most obvious cultural difference they should have learned before visiting Britain. Perhaps Leadsom can erect signs reminding them not to carry guns around as well?
Of course, most American visitors are far more conscientious than Sacoolas is alleged to have been, and I know British travellers can be fantastically irresponsible as well. President Trump can put this right, ease some of the pain of the Dunn family and reassure Britons of the US government’s commitment to a congenial transatlantic relationship by reassessing his initial response to this tragedy. It would be a small but still meaningful gesture to his British allies, as well as a small act in defence of the rule of law.
If the president denies the wishes of the Dunns, though, not only will it prolong an innocent family’s suffering, but it will cast a shadow across the cheerful hopes of Britons who imagine that Brexit will usher in a golden age of self-determination and national pride. If that sounds hyperbolic, imagine the response if a Belgian diplomat’s wife had mown down a British man, escaped to Brussels and been protected by the EU. Britons would never forget it – and they would be right.