Barack Obama hit back at Boris Johnson on Friday after London’s mayor suggested the US president had removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office because of anti-British sentiment.
In an article criticising Obama for supporting Britain’s EU membership during his visit to Britain, Johnson, who is fighting to leave the bloc, suggested the bust symbolised “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
At a press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama insisted he actually saw a bust of Churchill located outside his private office in the White House every day, “including on the weekends when I’m going to into that office to watch a basketball game”.
“I love Winston Churchill, love the guy,” Obama added.
His predecessor George W. Bush had another bust of Churchill in the Oval Office but, as the US’s first African-American president, Obama decided he wanted one of Martin Luther King, he said.
“There’s only so many tables where you can put busts, otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered,” Obama explained.
Johnson created a storm in Friday’s Sun newspaper by repeating allegations about the bust of Churchill, Britain’s World War II leader, while arguing that Obama should not interfere in the June 23 vote on Britain’s EU membership.
“On day one of Obama’s administration it was returned, without ceremony, to the British embassy in Washington,” Johnson, who has penned a biography of Churchill, wrote.
“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire, of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” he added.
Downing Street earlier shot down Johnson’s comments, saying the decision to remove the likeness of Churchill was taken before Obama took office.
Obama’s father was Kenyan but the president does not hold Kenyan citizenship and has never lived in Kenya.
Johnson is not the first political opponent of Obama to try to make capital out of his family background. US Republicans have done so for years, and the front-runner to win the party’s nomination for this year’s presidential race, Donald Trump, has been doing so during the campaign.
Johnson’s comment drew criticism from across the political spectrum in Britain, including from Conservative lawmaker Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, who called Johnson’s article “appalling” and “wrong on almost everything”.
“Inconceivable WSC (Churchill) would not have welcomed President’s views,” said Soames, who favours remaining in the European Union.
John McDonnell, the opposition Labour Party’s finance policy chief who also favours an “In” vote in the referendum, said Johnson’s comments contained an underlying hint of racism.
“Mask slips again. Boris part-Kenyan Obama comment is yet another example of dog-whistle racism from senior Tories (Conservatives). He should withdraw it.”
Asked during his news conference with Cameron to react to Johnson’s article, Obama drew laughs from reporters when he replied: “Let me start with Winston Churchill.”
He said his predecessor, George W. Bush, had kept a second bust of Churchill in the White House, this one in the Oval Office, but Obama had removed it to make space for one of Martin Luther King.
“I thought ... that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.”
Johnson responded to the criticism of his article by British politicians by saying he was “a big fan” of Obama.
In a statement sent by a spokesman, Johnson said the issue was the “weird paradox” of the president of a country that jealously guards its sovereignty urging Britain to surrender some of it by embedding itself further in the EU.
“The idea... that President Obama returned the Churchill bust or refused to display the bust because of antipathy towards the British is completely false and an urban legend that continues to circulate to this day,” it said.