LONDON – President Biden visited Westminster Hall here Sunday to view Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin, his first official act of condolence during a brief visit to the United Kingdom to attend the funeral of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
As he stood before the coffin, Biden took a deep breath before making the sign of the cross and then placing his hand over his heart. With the visit, Biden and his wife, Jill, became the latest-and highest profile-visitors to the royal lying-in-state that has drawn thousands of people in queues stretching for miles.
“She was the same in person as her image,” Biden said Sunday after signing a condolence book for her. “Decent, honorable and all about service.”
Biden’s itinerary is being closely watched by the British public, from his arrival on Air Force One on Saturday night to which British officials he chooses to engage to his use of the presidential limousine known as “The Beast” while other world leaders are relegated to buses.
With a new monarch in King Charles III and a recently installed prime minister in Liz Truss, the United Kingdom is experiencing an “extremely rare” period of political transition, and Britons see the “special relationship” between the U.K. and U.S. as a source of continuity and stability, said Brian Klass, associate professor of global politics at University College London.
White House officials said Biden’s trip would largely be a show of respect for the queen and the British people rather than a political or diplomatic mission, even as the gathering of hundreds of heads of state and dignitaries could surface a number of global flashpoints and highlight emerging tensions between London and Washington.
Biden was initially on a list of foreign leaders the British government said Truss would meet ahead of the funeral, but the White House said Saturday that the meeting would instead take place next week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Earlier in the week, White House aides had declined to outline an agenda of policy goals or preview any diplomatic meetings.
“The main reason to go to London, of course, is to pay our respects to the queen and to the royal family and to the people of Great Britain,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. “That’s the main purpose of the visit. I don’t have any other meetings to speak to right now.”
When Biden’s U.K. itinerary was released hours later, it did not include meetings with officials outside the royal family.
In addition to visiting Westminster Hall on Sunday, the president signed the official condolence book for the queen and attended a reception for world leaders hosted by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace. The first lady joined him for each of the events, part of a limited American delegation that does not include any former U.S. presidents.
He will attend the queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey on Monday before returning to Washington and embarking on a week of high-stakes diplomacy at the U.N. General Assembly. White House aides say Biden will wait until the General Assembly, which he will attend in New York starting Tuesday, to push his foreign policy vision among his fellow world leaders.
That is probably the safest approach, given the sensitivities around politics at the queen’s funeral, said Klass.
“There would be lot of downside in Biden making this visit about policy, because this is supposed to be about the queen,” he said. “I think the trip will be extremely risk-averse. There’s no upside to rocking the boat.”
But the president, who previously chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and regularly boasts of the personal relationships he has built with foreign officials over his half-century in public life, could find it difficult to avoid talking policy when surrounded by his colleagues on the world stage.
The gathering of so many global leaders – including officials from France, Germany, India, Poland and China – has already prompted discussion of issues including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stubbornly high global inflation, China’s growing sphere of influence, climate change, colonialism and the threats to democracy around the world. Many of the faces in the crowd at the funeral will be familiar ones to the president.
“I’ve known every major world leader in the last 40 years,” Biden said during a commencement address at South Carolina State University in December, repeating a favorite line. “I’ve spoken to over 140 heads of state since I’ve become president.”
While Biden has spoken with Truss, he has not yet met in person with the 47-year-old prime minister who took office earlier this month. It is rare for an American president to visit the United Kingdom without meeting with the prime minister, but the circumstances of this visit – the funeral of a queen who served for 70 years – are also rare. It remains possible that the Bidens and Truss will meet by chance, as they will be attending many of the same events in London.
Truss has taken a hard-line stance against Russia and its aggression toward Ukraine, an approach in line with what Biden has sought from his foreign counterparts. But on other issues, including a post-Brexit agreement concerning Northern Ireland and a potential trade deal between the U.S. and U.K., Truss’s views do not align as seamlessly with Biden’s position.
By avoiding such potential tension points during the trip, Biden would be aiming to signal support for the British people as they take time to mourn and memorialize Queen Elizabeth, who largely eschewed political battles.
Biden said Sunday that the queen, whom he joined for tea last year at Windsor Castle, reminded him of his mother with the way she would touch him when leaning over.
“She had that look like ‘Are you okay, anything I can do for you, anything you need?’” he said. “But also, ‘Make sure you do what you’re supposed to do.’”
The president adjusted his schedule to attend the funeral, changing the date of his speech to the U.N. from Tuesday to Wednesday.
While Biden is traveling with fewer aides than typical and scheduling no official bilateral meetings or press statements, his arrival with all the accoutrements of the American presidency will no doubt leave an impression on those looking for clues about the status of the U.S.-U.K. relationship.
Some other foreign leaders were strongly encouraged by the British government to leave behind their private planes and trade their personal limousines for shuttles, in part because of the logistical difficulties of accommodating so many diplomatic entourages. Biden, however, was heartily welcomed as he arrived outside London on Air Force One and traveled in a motorcade of at least fifteen vehicles.
The White House said the official invitation to the U.S. to attend the funeral was only for Biden and the first lady.
Queen Elizabeth died Sept. 8 at the age of 96. Biden was the 13th U.S. president she had met during a tenure that spanned seven decades.
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