In the months leading up to the United Kingdom’s referendum on its European Union membership, President Barack Obama urged Britons to think carefully about the choice ahead of them. Leaving the EU would move the U.K. to the “back of the queue” on trade deals, he warned in April, and cast doubt upon the global institutions created in the wreckage of World War II.
Hillary Clinton, too, cautioned Britons against scuppering decades of ever-growing trans-Atlantic cooperation. In April, Jake Sullivan, her top foreign policy adviser, said the Western alliance has always been “strongest when Europe is united.” Donald Trump, on the other hand, while at times a full-throated supporter of Brexit, cautioned in a TV interview, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.”
But on Friday, after British voters stunned the world by voting for “Leave,” Obama declared that Brexit will not affect the “special relationship” after all, even as he lost his trans-Atlantic partner, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who tendered his resignation. Meanwhile, Leave supporter Boris Johnson, a colorful upper-crust Conservative who has drawn comparisons to Trump, emerged as the leading candidate to take Cameron’s place.
Obama sought to reassure, saying he recognized that “the people of the United Kingdom have spoken, and we respect their decision,” but the special relationship would remain unchanged. It was left to Vice President Joe Biden to express the White House’s dismay, acknowledging during his Ireland trip that the U.S. had “preferred a different outcome.”
“I do think that yesterday’s vote speaks to the ongoing changes and challenges that are raised by globalization, the president said later at a forum at Stanford University, in his only allusion so far to the sort of populist rage represented by Trump and the Brexit movement.
Clinton, meanwhile, went on the attack, telling American voters that the Brexit vote “only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House to protect Americans’ pocketbooks and livelihoods, to support our friends and allies, to stand up to our adversaries, and to defend our interests” — an unmistakable shot at Trump and a reminder of her experience as secretary of state.
“It also underscores the need for us to pull together to solve our challenges as a country, not tear each other down,” she added for good measure.
And Clinton sought to reinforce her economic message aimed at “everyday Americans,” arguing that the “first task has to be to make sure that the economic uncertainty created by these events does not hurt working families here in America.”
Trump by then had already celebrated the Brexit vote as vindication for his brand of nationalism-fueled politics, speaking to reporters in Turnberry, Scotland, to promote one of his golf courses.
“Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing,” he said — never mind that Scots overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, with the country’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, calling a second vote on Scottish independence “highly likely.”
And the Manhattan mogul laced into Obama directly, saying, “The U.K. has been such a great ally for so long, they’ll always be at the front of the line. They’ve been amazing allies, in good times and in bad times.”
Trump also slammed Obama and his former secretary of state for misreading the political moment.
“I’m surprised that Obama came over here and was so bold as to tell people here what to do,” Trump said. “And I think that a lot of people don’t like him and I think if he had not said it, I think your result might have been different. But when he said it, people were not happy about it and I thought it was totally inappropriate.”
“And then she doubled down and she did the same thing,” Trump added. “They’re always wrong, and that’s the problem with them.”
In his formal statement sent to reporters, Trump was more statesmanlike, pledging to “strengthen our ties with a free and independent Britain, deepening our bonds in commerce, culture and mutual defense.
“The whole world is more peaceful and stable when our two countries — and our two peoples — are united together, as they will be under a Trump administration,” he said.
Clinton, declaring the aftermath of Brexit a “time of uncertainty,” didn’t address Trump’s comments directly in her own statement. But her top aides held a conference call in which they unloaded on the presumptive Republican nominee in far sharper terms.
Trump, Sullivan told reporters, “proves again and again that he is temperamentally unfit for the job.
“The American people need a steady hand at times of uncertainty, not a reckless egomaniac,” he said.
“Donald Trump actively rooted for this outcome and the economic turmoil in its wake,” Sullivan said of the Brexit vote, adding that from Clinton’s perspective, “it really matters who’s actually sitting in the Oval Office.”
“We have the wherewithal to help American families to weather all kinds of storms, but it takes strong, effective leadership — but Donald Trump just doesn’t have it,” Sullivan added.
Nolan D. McCaskill , Annie Karni and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.