LONDON -- President Donald Trump on Friday tried to repair the diplomatic damage from an interview criticizing his host, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, by praising her leadership and calling the two countries' relationship "the highest level of special," even as he continued to publicly question her decisions.
During a news conference at Chequers, the prime minister's 16th-century official country residence, Trump was by turns defiant, fawning and dismissive about the interview. He first tried to deny he had criticized the prime minister and blamed the episode on the news media. He then tried to compensate by lavishing May with compliments and, in the end, claimed that the slights were so insignificant that she had waved off his attempts at an apology.
The contortions followed a report in The Sun newspaper late Thursday that quoted him criticizing May's approach to Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. He said her business-friendly plan would leave Britain closely tied to the bloc, ultimately killing the prospect of a trade deal between the United States and Britain. He then proceeded to praise perhaps her most prominent rival, Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary this week in protest over her plan.
"I didn't criticize the prime minister; I have a lot of respect for the prime minister," Trump told reporters during an outdoor news conference after he and May had met for talks. He blamed "fake news," falsely claiming the report -- in a right-wing, pro-exit tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News in the United States -- had omitted any praise of May.
"I think she's doing a terrific job, by the way," Trump added, calling her "tough" and "capable."
The president urged reporters to listen to a full recording of the interview, which he said would give the full picture. But the audio already posted on The Sun's website undermined Trump's claim of "fake news."
In the interview, Trump criticized May's exit plan and said it may cause a proposed U.K.-U.S. trade deal to collapse. He questioned her competence just as her government is in turmoil from contentious negotiations on how Britain will leave the European Union.
"Well, I think the deal that she is striking is not what the people voted on," Trump said in the interview. The president backed away from the comments on Friday, saying of May's exit talks: "Whatever you're going to do is OK with us. Just make sure we can trade together. That's all that matters."
Trump pressed ahead with his complaints that European immigration policies are changing the "fabric of Europe" and destroying European culture.
At the news conference with May, Trump reiterated his belief that Europe's decision to accept migrants from Middle Eastern and African countries is "a very negative thing for Europe."
Trump acknowledged that his remarks were "politically not necessarily correct." But he said European countries need to "watch themselves."
"You are changing culture, you are changing a lot of things," he said, adding, "You see the same terror attacks that I do."
Trump was reiterating a position he articulated in The Sun, in which he said "I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad."
May quickly rebutted Trump during their joint appearance, saying the U.K. has a "proud history of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution to our country."
"Over the years, overall immigration has been good for the U.K.," she added. "It's brought people with different backgrounds, different outlooks here to the U.K. and we've seen them contributing to our society and our economy."
Critics have faulted the president for using language that echoes white-supremacist laments about the loss of white power.
PUTIN AND PROTESTS
Trump also used the news conference to lay out an ambitious agenda for his Monday meeting in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, saying he had low expectations but high hopes for progress on nuclear arms control issues, Syria and Ukraine. He said he would ask Putin about Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but he said he did not expect his Russian counterpart to acknowledge his role.
In the news conference, an unrestrained Trump also blamed his predecessor for Russian aggression in Crimea, placed fair trade at the center of Britain's efforts to leave the European Union, defended his beliefs that immigration has damaged Europe and repeatedly jousted with television correspondents whose coverage he found critical.
The news conference was a scene in itself, featuring the moos of cows in the distance. And Trump at times drew laughs from some British reporters, who jeered his criticism of the media and openly laughed at his numerous boasts.
Trump was greeted by large protests Friday across Britain, including tens of thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets of London alongside a giant balloon that flew over Parliament depicting him as a cellphone-toting angry baby in a diaper.
Trump acknowledged feeling unwelcome in the city, and blamed that in part on Mayor Sadiq Khan, who gave protesters permission to fly the baby Trump balloon.
"I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London," he told The Sun.
Trump also blamed recent terrorist attacks there on Khan, who is Muslim.
Khan, whose grandparents are from Pakistan, responded by questioning why Trump repeatedly criticizes him.
"Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin. Cities in America all suffered terror attacks," Khan told British broadcaster Sky News. "And it's for President Trump to explain why he singled me as the mayor of London out and not the mayors of other cities and leaders of other cities."
Even as he tried to pivot away from his criticism of May, Trump did confirm perhaps the most damaging element of the report in The Sun, which quoted him saying that the prime minister had rejected his advice about how to approach the separation and was therefore headed down a damaging path. He said he still believed May should follow his advice.
"I did give her a suggestion -- I wouldn't say advice -- and I think she found it maybe too brutal," Trump said. "As far as negotiating the deal, I probably would have done what my suggestion was to the prime minister, but she can always do that. At some point, she can do what I suggested."
Trump said that the first thing he had done upon his arrival at Chequers on Friday was to offer a mea culpa to May but that she had assured him none was necessary, joining him in pinning the drama on the news media.
"I said, 'I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you,'" Trump said of May, adding, "She said, 'Don't worry, it's only the press.' "
May, for her part, denied that she had felt undermined by the article, pivoting repeatedly to her insistence that the exit plan she is pursuing will, in fact, pave the way for an "ambitious" bilateral trade deal.
She praised the strength of the British-U.S. bond. But in a gentle rebuke, she said: "It is all of our responsibility to ensure that trans-Atlantic unity endures."
As for her relationship with Trump, she said: "We are friends."
Trump was on his best behavior as he wrapped up the visit, insisting the U.S.-U.K. relationship is at "the highest level of special" before dropping by Windsor Castle for tea with the queen and heading off for a weekend at one of his golf courses in Scotland.
A chauffeured Range Rover took Trump and first lady Melania Trump to the courtyard of Windsor Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II was awaiting them under a canopy on a dais.
There were handshakes all around, then the threesome stood side by side as a military band played America's national anthem. With the queen in the middle, the Trumps seemed to tower over the monarch, who is about 5 feet 3 inches tall. The president is about 6 feet 2 inches, and Melania Trump is near that in her stilettos.
The president and queen then broke off to review the troops, walking slowly past a line of Coldstream Guards wearing traditional bearskin hats. While Trump typically likes to take the lead, he appeared mostly to follow the queen's direction, adjusting his pace to hers.
Additional protests were waiting for Trump in Scotland as he took a weekend break before traveling to Finland to meet Putin.
Information for this article was contributed by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Stephen Castle of The New York Times; and by Jill Colvin, Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller, Darlene Superville, Ken Thomas, Kevin Freking and Frank Jordans of The Associated Press.
British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference Friday with President Donald Trump at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house. Trump said May is “doing a terrific job.”
A Section on 07/14/2018
Print Headline: Trump, May put up united front