Trump retreats, lauds May as remarks dominate visit
Criticism of UK’s leader overshadows visit to shore up ties
ELLES BOUROUGH, England – President Donald Trump on Friday attempted to downplay searing remarks he made to a London newspaper about British Prime Minister Theresa May and said he apologized to her for what he described as a “fake” story.
Standing alongside May at the prime minister’s country retreat, Trump specifically retreated from comments The Sun published hours earlier in which the president criticized her plan to withdraw from the European Union. Instead, Trump heaped praise on May and touted the strong relationship between the two countries.
“I have a lot of respect for the prime minister,” Trump said before turning to the issue of the U.K.’s effort to pull out of the European Union, known as Brexit.
“She’s a very tough, very smart, very capable person. I would much rather have her as my friend than my enemy.” President Donald Trump
“Whatever you’re gonna do is OK with us.”
Trump characterized the relationship between the U.S. and U.K. as “the highest level of special.”
“Is there a level higher than that?” he said as he turned toward May.
Throughout a news conference that followed meetings between the leaders on Thursday and Friday, Trump and May largely sidestepped questions about the interview as they sought to present an image of unity. They held hands as they walked down four ancient, brick steps into a garden overlooking the East English countryside.
The president denied criticizing May in the story, argued that The Sun did not include his positive comments, described the piece as “fake news” and said he had a recording of the interview to prove it.
The Sun, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, released audio of the interview after the story was published.
“She’s a very tough, very smart, very capable person,” Trump said. “I would much rather have her as my friend than my enemy.”
Trump also said he apologized to May after he arrived at Chequers on Friday.
“Don’t worry,” Trump said May responded. “It’s only the press.”
But the tabloid broadside appeared to overshadow what was supposed to be a friendly meeting to shore up the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, and it raised questions about the two leaders’ ability to strike a deal on trade that May’s government is eager to reach.
In the Sun interview, which published soon after May hosted Trump at a black-tie dinner at Blenheim Palace, the president cast his lot with the conservative faction that wants a complete split with the European government in Brussels. Trump told The Sun that a trade deal with the U.S. would likely not happen if May’s plan to keep close trade ties with the EU goes ahead.
He also said Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary this week over May’s Brexit plan, would be a “great prime minister.”
Trump’s U.K. trip is part of a sevenday, European tour intended to shore up alliances before Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Trump sought to lower expectations for that meeting during the news conference. He said he intended to discuss nuclear proliferation, Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — but suggested that building a relationship with Putin was his top goal.
“I love the United States, but I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries,” Trump said.
Trump said he would raise Russian meddling in the election, but added he didn’t expect much on the issue from Putin, who has denied involvement.
“I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump said. “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it. You got me!’ There won’t be Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
An hour’s drive away in central London, tens of thousands of protesters banged drums and shouted slogans to show their disapproval of Trump’s policies, especially on immigration. Their battle flag: A 20-foot inflatable blimp in the shape of a diaper-wearing Trump, flying in the skies above Westminster.
The “Trump baby” was later deflated for its journey to Scotland, where it will be used to taunt Trump at his golf course this weekend.
But Trump largely avoided the protests, ferrying from site to site by helicopter.
May’s government downplayed the significance of Trump’s remarks, with Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan telling the BBC he saw nothing wrong with what Trump said.
“Donald Trump is a controversialist — that is his style, that is the color he brings to the world stage,” he told the BBC’s Today program. “I don’t think it’s rude to praise Boris Johnson. He is entitled to his opinion.”
And Duncan said Trump’s criticism of May’s plan is out-of date, with a more detailed white paper being released since Trump sat down for the interview Wednesday in Brussels. He said he was confident that a trade deal with the U.S. could still happen as it is in both countries’ “mutual interests.”
But among May’s supporters in Parliament, condemnation of the interview was swift. One conservative, Anna Soubry, said Trump’s insults only enhance May’s credibility in the United Kingdom. “Yet again he diminishes the standing of the great country he is meant to lead,” she said.
Jane Onyanga-Omara reported from London. John Fritze reported from Washington.
President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May head to a news conference Friday.