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Obama hits back at London mayor in Churchill statue row

Published on April 22, 2016

Barack Obama hit back at Boris Johnson 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.

“Let’s focus on facts,” said Cameron’s official spokeswoman.

The White House has also dismissed previous such claims as “completely false”.

It said in a 2012 post on its website that former prime minister Tony Blair had loaned Bush a Churchill bust for the Oval Office which was removed on the day of Obama’s inauguration.

“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.

Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, an MP from Cameron’s Conservative party who supports EU membership, also dismissed Johnson’s claim.

“@BorisJohnson it is not compulsory to have head of WSC (Churchill’s initials) in President’s office. Stupid irrelevant empty point to make #growupgetreal,” Soames wrote on Twitter.