Trump re­treats, lauds May as re­marks dom­i­nate visit

Crit­i­cism of UK’s leader over­shad­ows visit to shore up ties

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Gre­gory Korte, Jane Onyanga-Omara and John Fritze

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.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May head to a news con­fer­ence Fri­day.

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