New embassy signifies fresh era of friendship, US ambassador to UK says

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LONDON -- "The new embassy signifies a new era of friendship between our two countries," U.S. Ambassador Woody Johnson announced to reporters Wednesday at the press preview of the new U.S. Embassy in London. "When you look out through the window, it reflects the global outlook of the U.S. in the 21st century," he said, flanked by the American flag and the Union Jack, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the River Thames.

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On this grim, drizzly London day he spoke about a "very bright future," as reporters were left to imagine the main cafeteria awash in sunlight sometime, perhaps, in August.

Johnson, 70, is the billionaire owner of the New York Jets and heir to pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson who has rallied big money for Republican candidates including President Donald Trump. Just six weeks officially into the ambassadorial gig, Trump's long-time friend stuck to the administration script today at a time when that special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. appears to be in some trouble.

"This relationship is strong and enduring," he repeated multiple times today.

When asked about the damage done when President Trump re-tweeted three videos shared by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, last month, he brushed it off.

"I don't think these kind of things will deter [Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May] from the objectives they both have," he said. He wouldn't say it was wrong for the president to retweet the videos and added that it's not really his job to smooth this out. For her part, May made it clear last month that "retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do."

"Every president and every ambassador handles those things a little differently," Johnson admitted. "He may have a different way of handling a security issue."

When asked about the tweets last month, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders also said this was President Trump's approach to security. "The threat is real, what the president is talking about," Sanders said. "The need for national security and military spending, those are very real things, there's nothing fake about that."

The imposing cube-shaped building is now the centerpiece of the largest regeneration project in Europe, Nine Elms in the Wandsworth borough of London. It spans 518,050 square feet, climbs more the 200 feet tall and cost a billion dollars, making it the most expensive U.S. Embassy building ever.

"It's a neighborhood with a great view. And a great future," Johnson said, joined today by key partners in this decade-long project.

For more than 200 years, the home of the U.S. diplomatic post has been in Grosvenor Square, in London's swanky Mayfair borough. The most recent embassy building, which opened in 1960, has now been sold to a Qatari developer, and “Little America," as it's called here, "is moving south of the river," said Johnson.

The new ambassador described the current embassy as a "window to the special relationship that the U.S. and U.K. have built together." It's famously topped with a bronze sculpture of the American Bald Eagle which will remain behind, and a flag that “the president would like ... because it’s a very big flag," the ambassador quipped.

The new building will open for business on January 16, 2018, but the dedication will come at a later, undisclosed date.

Asked if President Trump would dedicate the building, Johnson said "it depends on his schedule... He's a busy president at the moment, traveling the world and traveling the U.S. Yeah, we'd love to have him over here and we look forward to welcoming the president when he gets here."

Under fire to rescind her invitation last month over those Britain First retweets, Prime Minister May has reiterated that the invitation to the American president still stands. Speaking in Amman, Jordan last month, May told reporters that "an invite for a state visit has been extended and has been accepted. No date has been set."

In recent weeks, calls from both the British public and politicians to protest the American president's state visit have grown louder - but Johnson isn't worried.

"The great thing about being in London and the great thing about being in the U.S. is the ability to express your point of view," he said. "That's something we live with everyday and it's an important part of who we are."

"The new embassy is a signal to the world that this special relationship we have will get stronger and will get better," he concluded. "And I’m going to do that if I can."

"Drop the 'if I can,'" he quickly added. "We’re going to make it stronger.”

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