Donald Trump today lambasted America’s £750 million new embassy in London as a “bad deal” marooned in an “off location”.
The US president said his disgust at the deal was behind the cancellation of a UK visit to formally open the distinctive glass building in Nine Elms, one of the capital’s flagship development areas.
His outburst on Twitter read: “Reason I canceled [sic] 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 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!”
His attempt to blame Barack Obama fell apart when documents showed that the decision to sell the historic US embassy in Grosvenor Square, central London, was announced under the two men’s predecessor George W Bush.
Writing exclusively in today’s Evening Standard, Mr Trump’s ambassador to London, Robert “Woody” Johnson, gives a contrasting message.
He calls the new building, by architects KieranTimberlake, “the most secure, hi-tech and environmentally friendly embassy that the United States has ever built”. The figure previously given has been $1 billion.
Mr Johnson said it “did not cost the US taxpayer a cent” after property sales. The latest twist in the on-off presidential visit to Britain raised questions about whether relations between London and Washington have become strained.
Senior government sources said Mr Trump’s tweet should be “taken at face value” and denied there was any rift, despite recent controversy when the president retweeted propaganda made by a British far-Right group.
Diplomatic sources told the Standard that Britain’s embassy in Washington was the “best plugged in” to the Trump administration. They said an identical message that he was unhappy with the cost of the new embassy had been privately conveyed at least two days ago.
“Remember, Trump is a deal-maker, and in particular a dealer in real estate, so he has strong views,” said a source. Concerns were raised that in his first year in office Mr Trump has paid high-profile visits to cities around the world, including Paris, Rome, Brussels and Hamburg, but has yet to drop into London despite accepting an invitation from the Queen to stage a State Visit.
Senior Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, suggested Mr Trump was more offended by British criticism because as an English speaker he was able to read it for himself. “While I think it’s a shame, I think — if I’m honest — it more reflects the fact that other people criticise in French, Italian, Korean and other languages and we criticise in English, and it’s much easier for him to read,” he said.
But Mayor Sadiq Khan said Mr Trump seemed finally to have got the message that he was not welcome in London, where “his policies and actions are the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance”.
Mass protests have been threatened since the state visit was mooted a year ago. In October the Standard revealed plans for a stripped-down Trump visit to open the embassy.
More recently, there have been reports that he wants to attend the wedding of Prince Harry and US-born Meghan Markle in May.
The Grosvenor Square embassy, topped by a gilded bald eagle with a wingspan of more than 11 metres, opened in 1960 to a design by Eero Saarinen.
The square has been home to the US since 1938. It was acquired by Qatar for a hotel but the sale, signed off by the Obama administration, raised less than the £500 million first estimated after it was made a Grade II listed building, reducing development potential.
In his Standard article, Mr Johnson said: “I agree with President Trump that Grosvenor Square, in the heart of London, was a perfect location for our embassy. Security concerns after September 11 meant we had to move to a location that could better protect American citizens and our British neighbours.”
The US state department revealed in October 2008, a month before Mr Obama was elected, that it was taking the “first steps” towards relocating to Nine Elms near Battersea Power Station, including offering the old building for sale. In 2010, the Obama administration announced the choice of architects for “a truly iconic embassy” that would reflect US values of “transparency, openness, and equality” and incorporate energy-saving measures.
The 48,128 square-metre crystalline cube has security built into the landscaping, including a pond that forms a moat. A woman who has worked at the embassy for five years played down the criticism.
She said: “We are all supportive of the move and we’ve been preparing for a while, so everyone is on board. Some people are already working from there since before Christmas. I can’t comment on the President’s tweets. We have to just do it and make the move.”
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, a supporter of the US president, suggested concerns about protests may have been the real reason for the visit’s cancellation. “It’s disappointing — he has been to countries all over the world and yet he has not been to the one with whom he is closest,” he said on BBC Radio 4.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna said it was “very welcome he is not coming any more”, adding: “He runs counter to British values.”
Mark Shipman, a partner at London property agent Michael Elliott, said: “The US president is wrong in his comments about a bad property deal, and has used his deeply unpopular persona not to come to the UK on a property deal, which is outrageous.
“Grosvenor Square was held long leasehold from the Grosvenor Estate and not even Margaret Thatcher could help the US Government obtain the freehold as the late Duke of Westminster would not pass across the freehold until the island of Manhattan was returned to his family ownership.”