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An insight into the diplomatic chaos that followed Donald Trump’s January travel ban has been given by emails from the time released by the British Foreign Office.
The messages, released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, are heavily censored, with many names and comments removed. But they still give a flavor of the panic across the UK government as officials tried to reach their U.S. counterparts to establish the impact of the president’s executive order banning entry to people from seven mainly Muslim countries.
“[REDACTED]’s the expert and is urgently seeking clarity from State Dept.,” reads one of the first messages, sent the day after the order was announced. “But two important quick points: – the changes came into force yesterday; and – we don’t know if British travelers will be affected. Dual nationals might be.”
The travel ban was particularly embarrassing for Prime Minister Theresa May as it was signed on Friday, Jan. 27, the day she became the first overseas visitor to Trump’s White House. Her plane was in the air on its way to her next stop, Turkey, when the British realized what had happened. “Not great after the PM visit,” observed an unnamed UK diplomat.
On the ground in Ankara the next day, May struggled to answer questions about Trump’s move. The diplomatic exchanges suggest this was because the British Embassy in Washington was itself struggling to reach anyone in the U.S. administration to explain the impact of the travel ban.
“Hi [REDACTED], I’ve called and left messages on both of [REDACTED]’s numbers, and emailed him, but still had nothing back,” read one message that day. “Do you have any additional contact details for him?”
Trump’s order had created some chaos in the US as well, with border officials at airports unsure of what procedures were required and exactly who should be prohibited from entering the U.S. Spontaneous protests erupted at airports and legal challenges ultimately blocked implementation. A third attempt at a more narrowly-drawn ban also is being contested in courts.
The messages released suggest that while UK diplomats in the U.S. were trying to get answers, officials around May also failed to appreciate the significance of Trump’s move. They told government spokesmen to “stick to the following lines for now” — that the UK’s immigration rules hadn’t changed — “and then revisit tomorrow.” May’s line at the time was that U.S. immigration policy was a matter for the U.S.
But once again, the situation shifted while the prime minister was in the air. As she flew back from Turkey that Saturday, one of her Conservative Party’s lawmakers, Nadhim Zahawi, revealed that as an Iraqi-born Briton, he would be covered by the ban, and unable to visit his sons, who were studying at Princeton.
May’s office soon announced that she didn’t agree with Trump’s move. “The dual nationals angle will of course be really difficult for us,” a British diplomat in Washington noted.
The next day, Sunday Jan. 29, the government was still trying to work out what the U.S. position was. And one of the country’s most famous athletes was now involved.
“We are getting a lot of press calls on what our advice to British/dual nationals affected by this change is,” a message read that afternoon. “Sir Mo Farah has put out a statement saying he doesn’t know whether he can go back to his family in the USA which has increased the interest further.”
Even 24 hours later, after the UK had secured agreement from the U.S. that the ban didn’t apply to people traveling from Britain, there was alarm in the Foreign Office after the U.S. embassy in London briefly published a contradictory statement.
In an email that afternoon to Martin Reynolds, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, the U.S. embassy confirmed this had been a mistake. “I will ask them to issue a statement to this effect asap,” he said.
As the dust settled, Kara Owen, director of the Americas desk at the Foreign Office, sent a note to colleagues. “This weekend saw the impact the President’s executive orders can have on our nationals,” she wrote. “Many of these orders will no doubt be issued just as London is going to sleep. I would welcome any other predictions about EOs foreshadowed during the campaign and likely to touch on our interests — he is doing a lot of what he said he would.”
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.