Mike Pompeo sought to boost Boris Johnson’s hopes of securing a trade deal with the US on Wednesday amid a growing political backlash in Washington over the prime minister’s plans to rewrite last year’s Brexit divorce deal.
Following talks with Mr Johnson’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab, the US secretary of state insisted he was confident the UK would get its post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU “right” and said talks on a bilateral trade agreement were on track “for a successful conclusion before too long”.
“We have great confidence that they will get this right, and in a way that treats everyone fairly and gets a good outcome for what it was the people of the United Kingdom voted for now several years back,” Mr Pompeo said, standing alongside Mr Raab.
His comments come after senior US politicians have expressed deep concerns over the UK’s plans to introduce legislation that would override the withdrawal agreement with the EU which seeks to prevent the return of a hard border on Ireland.
Leading Democrats, including the speaker of the house of representatives Nancy Pelosi, have warned the UK that they will not sign off on a future trade deal if the new legislation leads to a hardening of the border and threatens the Good Friday Agreement, the accord that ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
“We cannot have . . . the EU seeking to erect a rigid border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain,” Mr Raab said, adding the UK was committed to avoid “any extra infrastructure at the border between the North and the South”.
Mr Pompeo said the Trump administration had “made clear our view of the importance” of the Good Friday Agreement and added he was “particularly pleased” with the status of US-UK free trade negotiations.
In a concession to language favoured by Donald Trump, Mr Raab said there was “huge opportunity for a win-win deal” on trade and blamed the EU for politicising the Northern Ireland protocol.
However, neither Mr Pompeo nor Mr Raab gave a timeline for concluding a trade deal. London has already written off any hope of securing a trade deal before the November presidential election.
Mr Pompeo’s support is unlikely to ease the concerns of a growing number of opponents in Congress, who would have to agree to any bilateral trade deal between the US and the UK. That would likely put House Democrats in a key position even if Mr Trump — who has repeatedly backed Brexit — were to win re-election in November.
Should Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s Democratic rival for the presidency who says his Irish roots have shaped his life, win the White House, he is also expected to be more sceptical of finalising a trade agreement with the UK.
On the eve of Mr Raab’s visit, two Republicans and two of the most powerful Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill sent a joint letter to Mr Johnson warning that congressional approval of a trade deal with the US had been jeopardised by the suggested changes to the withdrawal agreement.
“The United States Congress will not support any free trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom if the United Kingdom fails to preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and broader peace process,” said the letter.
Eliot Engel, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee and Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, which has jurisdiction over international trade, signed the letter, along with Republicans William Keating and Peter King.
Mr Raab was also due on Wednesday to meet Ms Pelosi, who has said there is “absolutely no chance” of Congress signing off on a trade agreement with the UK if plans for an “invisible and frictionless” border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are imperilled by UK legislation.
Ireland’s ambassador to the US, Daniel Mulhall, has spent the past 10 days rallying opposition in Congress, the administration and the wider Irish-American community to any push that might undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington