Donald Trump was “apoplectic” with fury in a phone call with Boris Johnson over the prime minister’s decision to back involvement by Chinese phone giant Huawei in the UK’s 5G mobile network, it has been claimed.
According to the Financial Times (FT), the US president expressed his anger “in livid terms” in a call on the day the British government announced its controversial decision, which is opposed by many senior Conservative MPs.
The report of Mr Trump’s anger and clash with the prime minister in a transatlantic call emerged a day after Mr Johnson was challenged on the decision in PMQs by former cabinet ministers Damian Green and David Davis.
Responding to the FT claim, a senior Downing Street source told Sky News: “It’s not an account I recognise.”
But the FT also quotes a second official claiming the Trump-Johnson phone call was “very difficult”.
On the day of the phone call last Tuesday, first revealed by the president in a news conference with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both Downing Street and the White House gave bland accounts of the conversation.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister spoke to President Trump this afternoon and updated him on the outcome of the UK’s telecoms supply chain review.
“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.”
In its account, the White House merely 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.”
But now the FT has reported: “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, the US vice-president, said after the Huawei decision that the Trump administration had made its disappointment at the UK decision “very clear to them”.
Following the Huawei decision, London and Washington have agreed to collaborate on reducing the use of Huawei equipment in Britain.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, has suggested 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 FT adds that 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 FT reports.
“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.
“Following Britain’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.”
In PMQs this week, Mr Green, formerly Theresa May’s unofficial deputy prime minister, called on Mr Johnson to reduce Huawei’s 35% 5G stake and Mr Davis, a former Brexit secretary, demanded an alternative deal.
Mr Green told MPs: “The prime minister is conscious of the very widespread concern in this House about the plans to involve Huawei in 5G networks, concern that will have only been increased by the news this week that France is building a new 5G network without the involvement of Huawei, following the lead of Australia.
“If they can do, we could do it.
“Will you confirm that you want to reduce Huawei’s involvement over time, and can he give a timescale as to when that involvement will hit zero?”
Mr Johnson replied: “You are certainly right that we are going to be reducing the involvement of Huawei below the 35% market cap, but he is also right in his general vision, which is one I entirely share.
“What has happened, I am afraid, is a failure of like-minded countries to produce an alternative to the 5G network except that provided by high-risk vendors. That is why we are now doubling the science budget.
“We will be working with some of the countries he mentions in order to produce exactly that diversification in the market.”
Mr Davis then told MPs: “The Australian agencies analysed the involvement of any element of Huawei in their 5G system and determined that any involvement would lead to a major risk of both sabotage and espionage.
“Can the prime minister give an undertaking that this country will lead the Five Eyes and NATO to create an alternative to Huawei in the next two years?”
He replied: “Yes, we will of course do nothing either to endanger our critical national security infrastructure or to prejudice co-operation with Five Eyes partners, as you have rightly suggested, and we will work to ensure that high-risk vendors cannot dominate our market.”
In the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been 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 Britain 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.