After berating his British hosts, Trump lauds Theresa May in bid to ease tensions
President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold a joint news conference.
ELLESBOROUGH, England — President Trump sought Friday to tamp down tensions with British Prime Minister Theresa May, saying the leaders had a “very, very strong” relationship — hours after publication of an interview in which he questioned May’s handling of “Brexit,” praised her deposed foe Boris Johnson and threatened to upend the trade relationship between the two countries.
The bombshell interview with the Sun, U.S. media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, landed as Trump was receiving a grand welcome from May, including a black-tie gala and an elaborate outdoor ceremony at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The two displayed warm chemistry at the dinner, U.S. and European officials said, with Trump praising May, and the publication of the interview had the potential to disrupt the carefully choreographed visit.
“May has wrecked Brexit . . . US deal is off!” the Sun’s front page screamed in capital letters.
By Friday morning, Trump’s comments were dominating British news coverage of the visit and causing additional headaches for the politically vulnerable May, whose approval ratings are low and whose country is struggling with its scheduled exit from the European Union. The White House issued a statement — partially written by Trump — that praised May as “terrific.”
“We talked for an hour and a half, and it was really something,” Trump said at Chequers, the British prime minister’s country home, upon his arrival Friday morning.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and President Trump prepare for a meeting at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, near Ellesborough, northwest of London on July 13, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
The president then lauded May for her work on NATO, a day after the conclusion of a two-day summit in Brussels that he jolted with dramatic reversals, excoriations of allies and demands for more allied defense spending.
While appearing with May, Trump made a mocking gesture to a reporter who screamed a question about his comments in the Sun — and did not answer.
At Chequers on Friday morning, May did not mention Trump’s interview, instead saying the two leaders would have a conversation on trade, security and NATO spending, among other issues.
The two were holding a joint meeting and a bilateral news conference Friday afternoon — when both leaders were likely to face questions over Trump’s comments.
In the Sun interview, Trump berated May for her Brexit strategy, warned that her plan could jeopardize any trade deal between their two countries and touted Johnson, her political rival who resigned as British foreign secretary earlier this week over May’s Brexit plans. Trump praised Johnson as a “great” potential prime minister.
If May follows through on her Brexit plan, “ that would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States,” Trump told the Sun in the 28-minute interview, which was published at 11 p.m. here on Thursday night. He added: “I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me.”
In the interview, Trump chastised another nemesis — London Mayor Sadiq Khan — accusing him of having done a “very bad job on terrorism.” Trump also criticized the influx of migrants into Europe, saying it “changed the fabric” of the continent.
The rhetoric in the interview was stark even by the standards of Trump, who had already provoked an international uproar at the NATO summit in Brussels. He accused Germany, a frequent target of his ire, of being “totally controlled” by Russia and prompted an emergency session of the alliance with his demands for increased defense spending.
Trump’s remarks to the Sun took Britain’s political class here by surprise. U.S. officials said that while Trump made the comments attributed to him in the interview conducted in Brussels, he also had more praise for May in parts of it that were not published.
Several members of May’s Conservative Party castigated the president for what they called his rudeness. Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said, “Where are your manners, Mr. President?”
Another Tory pushed back on Trump’s dismissal of May and his support for Johnson. Margot James, a digital industries minister, tweeted, “No Mr President Boris Johnson would make a terrible PM.”
But there was some support for Trump’s remarks from supporters of what is known as a “hard Brexit.” The leader of the group of Conservative backbenchers who want a clear decisive break with the European Union, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told BBC Radio on Friday morning that it was a “perfectly reasonable thing for an American president to say.”
Reaction from May’s government was circumspect — and remained hopeful.
Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, told BBC Radio that Trump made his remarks to the Sun on Wednesday and that he had not been fully briefed on May’s proposal, which was released Thursday in a dense, detailed, jargon-filled white paper of almost 100 pages.
“Events have move on somewhat,” Duncan explained, “because even as [Trump] was giving that interview, the white paper was being published in London. And so now that the details of the white paper are clear, the president and the prime minister will be able to discuss this in more detail at Chequers today, with more information than he might have had in Brussels.”
Philip Hammond, the British chancellor of the exchequer, said that once Trump hears May explain her plan, the president will come around.
May, who has sought a warm relationship with Trump amid difficulties, has planned an elaborate trip in a bid to build bonhomie. It is Trump’s first trip as president to Britain, where he is unpopular.
Trump has largely kept away from London — where a large “Baby Trump” balloon is up in the middle of town mocking him. Instead, he was whisked by helicopter to Churchill’s home for an elaborate dinner with British business officials and his friends. On Friday morning, he was taken to a military exercise in an attempt to show that Britain is tough on terrorism, followed by an afternoon meeting at Chequers.
Dawsey and Booth reported from London.
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