Trump tries to dispel tension with British prime minister after interview criticizing her leadership

British Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with President Trump before their meeting at the prime minister's country residence on Friday.
(Jack Taylor / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump on Friday sought to repair his newly damaged relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May, effusively praising her at a joint news conference after an explosive tabloid interview in which he criticized her, praised her rival and warned of an end to free trade between their countries.

The president did strongly reiterate one controversial contention from his interview Thursday with the Sun, a British tabloid owned by Trump supporter Rupert Murdoch: that immigrants were ruining Europe’s culture. May, in response, countered with the sort of tribute to immigrants that used to be a staple of American leaders.

Trump, echoing the language of white nationalists, said of immigration, “I do not think it’s good for Europe. And I don’t think it’s good for our country.”

“I know it’s politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I’ll say it and I’ll say it loud: I think they better watch themselves because you are changing culture, you are changing a lot of things. You’re changing security,” the president said as May stood by, plainly discomfited.

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The prime minister in turn cited Britain’s “proud history of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution” and said of immigrants, “We’ve seen them contributing to our society and our economy.”

Trump, otherwise doing his best at damage control in a joint news conference, blamed the media for focusing on disagreements and said the Sun had not published all of his positive comments about May. “I didn’t criticize the prime minister,” he said, though the newspaper posted an audio recording.

He insisted the United States and Britain have “the highest level of special” relationship. “Am I allowed to go higher than that? I don’t know,” he said, stealing a friendly glance at May.

Their news conference, and private discussions on economic and security issues, were held at Chequers, the sprawling 16th century manor that is the prime minister’s country retreat. Its location in the wooded countryside about 40 miles from London kept Trump far from protests that filled the capital’s streets for a second day — a rare demonstration against an American president. Trump and his wife, Melania, later had tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, also outside London.

Trump’s first trip to Britain had been repeatedly delayed, and was downgraded from a formal state visit, in part because of tensions he’d provoked in the past and the threat of mass protests. He gave the interview that roiled his arrival on Thursday before leaving Brussels, where he’d upended the annual NATO summit with harsh criticisms of allies, especially Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel.

In the tabloid interview, Trump also trashed London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim who has criticized the president, as being soft on crime and terrorists, and lamented the protests being staged against his visit. But it was his unabashed intervention into an ally’s domestic politics that so violated precedent and the traditional deference shown by presidents to their counterparts abroad.

The president’s publicly discordant relations with allies are the backdrop, then, for his first official visit on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Further complicating that get-together, on Friday while Trump visited the queen, the U.S. special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and possible Trump campaign complicity, sought new indictments against a dozen Russian intelligence officers for allegedly hacking Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein told reporters in Washington that Trump was told of the coming charges. Yet the president — on foreign soil — again assailed the investigation as “a witch hunt.”

He even blamed the United States’ soured relationship with Russia on the special counsel’s probe. “We’re being hurt very badly by the — I would call it the witch hunt,” he said. “I would call it the rigged witch hunt.”

Shortly before news of the indictments, as Trump and May walked away after their news conference, he responded to a shouted question about whether he’d tell Putin to “stay out of our elections.”

“Yes,” Trump said.

Likely to the chagrin of European allies, however, Trump did not hesitate to reply affirmatively to a question about whether he and Putin can have a good relationship as long as Russia continues to occupy Crimea, which it invaded and seized in 2014. NATO strongly condemned Russia’s occupation again this week, at the summit Trump attended.

“Yes,” he said. “I think I would have a very good relationship with Putin if we spend time together.” Yet again, Trump blamed President Obama for Russia’s seizure of Crimea, suggesting his weakness was a green light to Putin.

The news conference was dominated by questions about his interview with the Sun, leaving both leaders defensive and sometimes irritated. The first questioner, a British reporter for the BBC, asked Trump of his published remarks, “Is that really the behavior of a friend?”

Yet, from the moment they walked out of the brick manor, Trump and May appeared intent on showcasing a united front; the president held her hand as he helped her down a few brick steps to the podium.

May did not rebuke Trump even mildly. But she emphatically defended her handling of the difficult negotiations to remove Britain from the European Union by March, as required after British voters in 2016 approved the so-called Brexit referendum to withdraw from the EU and its common economic policies and open borders.

The prime minister, whose government was tottering over the issue even before Trump poured “nitroglycerine” on it, in the words of the London tabloid, acknowledged that Trump had offered advice on how to exit the EU, which she disregarded, he told the Sun.

She added, “Lots of people give me advice about how to negotiate with the European Union. My job is actually getting out there and doing it. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

“This does deliver on the vote of the British people,” she insisted of her recently unveiled plans, adding, “Let me be very clear about this: We will be leaving the European Union.”

In the Sun interview, Trump said of May’s Brexit plan, “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.”

Even as he insisted that the newspaper failed to print some of his glowing praise for May, he did not exactly back down from many of his comments, including a threat that a bilateral trade deal with Britain would be in jeopardy if he did not like the terms of its separation from Europe.

He called the negotiations a “tough situation,” adding, “I can fully understand why she thought it was a little tough.”

When a British journalist asked May about Trump’s praise for Boris Johnson, her rival who resigned this week as foreign minister in protest of her Brexit plan, the president stepped in to answer the question. He stood by his praise that Johnson would “make a great prime minister,” but complained that his compliments for May were underplayed.

“I also said that this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, and I mean that,” Trump said. “That Brexit is a very tough situation, that’s a tough deal. She’s going to do the best.”

As an aside, Trump noted approvingly that Johnson, who like the president considers himself a nationalist maverick, has said that Trump is doing a great job. The president agreed: “I am doing a great job — that I can tell you, in case you haven’t noticed.”

As he has on other foreign trips, Trump also broke with American presidential tradition by lashing out at “fake news,” using the phrase four times as he singled out reporters and media outlets whose coverage he doesn’t like.

When an NBC reporter asked Trump whether his criticisms of allies were giving Putin “the upper hand,” he angrily called such reporting “dishonest” and her network “worse than CNN.” The president declined to take a question from a CNN reporter, instead calling on a correspondent for Fox News, describing that Trump-friendly outlet as “a real network.”

His attacks prompted a statement from the White House Correspondents’ Assn. president, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News. “Asking smart, tough questions, whether in a presidential press conference or interview, is central to the role a free press plays in a healthy republic,” she said.

After tea with the queen, Trump flew to Scotland. He will spend the weekend at his golf retreat there, which he publicly promoted both in Brussels and Britain, ahead of the rendezvous with Putin in Finland on Monday.

Stokols reported from Ellesborough and Bierman and Calmes from Washington.


11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional Trump quotes, statements from Rosenstein and Talev and Trump’s departure from England to Scotland.

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments and context from the Trump-May news conference, and reports of the Trumps’ tea with the queen, the London protests and the special counsel’s new indictments.

7:55 a.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting throughout including remarks from Trump and May at their news conference.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.