Donald Trump vented “apoplectic” fury at Boris Johnson in a tense phone call over the UK’s decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G mobile phone networks, according to officials in London and Washington.
The UK prime minister spoke to the US president last week soon after he announced his decision to allow the Chinese manufacturer to participate in the UK’s next-generation cellular network. This was in spite of vocal opposition from senior figures in the Trump administration, which is opposed to Huawei on national security grounds.
Following the decision, the UK and US tried to gloss over their differences with muted public statements. But one individual briefed on the contents of the call said Mr Trump was “apoplectic” with Mr Johnson for his Huawei decision and expressed his views in livid terms.
A second official confirmed that the Trump-Johnson call was “very difficult”. British officials with knowledge of the exchange said they were taken aback by the force of the president’s language towards Mr Johnson.
Mike Pence, US vice-president, said after the Huawei decision that the Trump administration had made its disappointment at the UK decision “very clear to them”. But the extent of Mr Trump’s anger was unknown until now.
Downing Street, the US state department, the US National Security Committee and the White House declined to comment on the call.
The White House only provided a short official readout of the call last Tuesday. It said: “Today, President Donald J Trump spoke with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. The two leaders discussed critical regional and bilateral issues, including telecommunications security.”
UK officials have privately voiced regret that the US could not offer a viable alternative provider for 5G equipment. Downing Street’s readout of the call hinted at this frustration. “The prime minister underlined the importance of like-minded countries working together to diversify the market and break the dominance of a small number of companies,” a UK government spokesperson said at the time.
Following the Huawei decision, London and Washington have agreed to collaborate on reducing the use of Huawei equipment in the UK. William Barr, the US attorney-general, suggested on Thursday that the US should consider buying a controlling stake in Ericsson and Nokia to help build a stronger international competitor.
Mr Barr said America and its allies should be “actively considering” proposals for “American ownership of a controlling stake” in the European companies, “either directly or through a consortium of private American and allied companies”. He added “it’s all very well to tell our friends and allies they shouldn’t install Huawei’s, but whose infrastructure are they going to install?”
The split over Huawei adds to growing transatlantic tensions between the US and UK on several policy areas. Mr Trump is opposed to Mr Johnson’s proposed digital services tax, with senior figures in his administration threatening retaliation. The two countries are also divided on the Iran nuclear deal, from which Mr Trump withdrew in 2018.
US officials spent months trying to convince London to follow their lead over Huawei. Analysts said Mr Trump’s own views and interest in the UK’s Huawei decision were barely known until the telephone call. He had previously described Huawei as “very dangerous” in public comments, although his administration approved some US sales to the company late last year.
Thomas Wright, an expert on US-Europe relations at the Brookings Institution, said the outburst indicated that Mr Trump had taken “personal affront” at Mr Johnson’s decision and that the US-UK relationship was more troubled than either liked to let on in public.
“To me the significance of the phone call is that it shows that Trump is very engaged and very upset and that this is not going to blow over and it will have implications if not on Five Eyes then on trade talks,” said Mr Wright, referring to the group of western nations which have an accord on intelligence sharing.
Following the UK’s decision, the White House said publicly it was “disappointed” but both governments agreed not to further ruffle any feathers. But the private phone call laid bare the challenges facing Mr Johnson on relations with the US, particularly as the UK prepares to enter negotiations for a transatlantic free trade deal.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, was one of the most vocal members of the Trump administration opposed to the Huawei decision. He had previously called on Mr Johnson to reconsider and warned that the Conservatives would be betraying the legacy of Margaret Thatcher if they opened the door to the Chinese manufacturer.
But by the time Mr Pompeo visited the UK immediately after the difficult Trump-Johnson phone call, he was publicly keen to move on. “I’m confident we can work together to implement that decision and work to get this right,” he said.
Mr Pompeo described the Huawei decision as Britain’s “sovereign” decision but acknowledged that the US did not agree and would ensure that its information was secure. “Good friends don’t always agree on everything,” Mr Pompeo added.