British officials reacted with concern at the announcement of President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting seven Muslim countries, internal Foreign Office documents reveal.
Emails released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show how officials struggled to cope with the blizzard of announcements issuing from the White House the days after Mr Trump took office.
There was particular concern about Mr Trump’s executive order on January 27 temporarily banning visitors from seven Muslim countries just hours after Theresa May became the first foreign leader to meet him in the Oval Office.
If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the "bad" would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad "dudes" out there!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017
Officials feared thousands of UK citizens with dual nationality could be prevented from travelling to the US, amid concerns about the potential impact on Anglo-American relations.
“BE (British Embassy) Washington have been trying to get clarity from State (The State Department) without luck so far,” one internal Foreign Office email dated January 28 reported.
“If true, this would obviously mean thousands of dual nationals with British passports being banned from travelling to the US. Not great after the PM visit.”
Another email, on the same day, said: “The dual nationals angle will of course be really difficult for us. I’ll come back to you when I have more on our response.”
Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 1, 2017
The emails show that officials closely monitored media coverage, including Press Association reports of the developing situation, as well as tweets from individual journalists.
One Press Association report picked up by officials highlighted Sir Mo Farah’s fears that he may be unable to return home to his children in the US.
“We’re still guiding the that we are working with the State dept to establish the impact but grateful if we can be kept informed of any new advice to Brits looking to travel,” one official wrote.
While the government secured an exemption for UK passport holders from the ban, which was subsequently struck down in the courts, the emails show officials were concerned the pace of developments in the US meant they could be caught out again.
One official complained they were “drowning under emails” while another noted the new administration was “ticking off campaign promises at a fair clip”.
On January 30, Kara Owen, director of the Americas desk at the Foreign Office, suggested setting up a new internal warning system to monitor the impact of Mr Trump’s executive orders on British interests.
“Many of these orders will no doubt be issued just as London is going to sleep,” she said. “I would like us to establish a system for assessing impact of the orders on UK interests (if any) and offering quick advice on what to do about it to the right readership (including senior readers in FCO and Whitehall, press and private offices).
“In addition, I would welcome any other predictions about EOs (executive orders) foreshadowed during the campaign and likely to touch on our interests, he is doing a lot of what he said he would.”
Downing Street said the emails showed officials working to protect UK interests and that they had not been afraid to raise concerns with the US.
“We were working pretty quickly to establish the impact (of the travel ban) on British nationals.
“Where we have difference with the US we don’t refrain from raising them,” a Number 10 spokeswoman said. “The Foreign Office is a 24/7 operation with offices around the globe. One of their jobs is to make sure they protect the UK’s interests and I think that is what the email exchanges show they were doing.”