President Donald Trump said on Friday that the United States and Britain could secure a “great” post-Brexit trade deal, lavishing praise on Prime Minister Theresa May and contradicting his own withering assessment of her strategy publicized hours earlier.
Fresh from sending NATO into crisis talks and ahead of a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump shocked Britain’s political establishment when he criticized May’s plans for ties with the European Union after Britain leaves in March.
In a newspaper interview published just hours before holding talks with May, Trump said her Brexit strategy would “kill” any chance of a trade deal and said she had not listened to his advice on how to negotiate with the EU.
But as the two leaders stood together for a press conference in the garden of May’s grand 16th-Century official residence Chequers, Trump said the British leader was doing a “fantastic job,” that it was up to her how to conduct Brexit, and that a free-trade deal was very much on the table.
Relations had never been more special, he said, and any criticism was “fake news.”
“Once the Brexit process is concluded and perhaps the U.K. has left the EU, I don’t know what they’re going to do but whatever you do is okay with me, that’s your decision,” Trump said.
“Whatever you do is okay with us, just make sure we can trade together; that’s all that matters. The United States looks forward to finalizing a great bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom. This is an incredible opportunity for our two countries, and we will seize it fully.”
At the same location a week ago, May finally won agreement for her Brexit plans from her cabinet after two years of tortuous internal wrangling. But within days, two senior ministers had quit, departures which Trump said earlier in the week had left Britain in turmoil.
Some lawmakers in her deeply divided Conservative Party have cast May’s “business-friendly” Brexit plan as a betrayal that would leave Britain too close to the EU and warned that she might face a leadership challenge.
May’s formal proposals were published on Thursday, but hours later The Sun published an interview with Trump in which he appeared to side with the prime minister’s critics.
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K., so it will probably kill the deal,” he told the Sun. “I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”
Asked about that interview, Trump said he had not criticized May, lavishing praise on “a terrific woman” who was smart, tough and capable.
“This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job,” he said. “She’s a total professional because when I saw her this morning, I said, ‘I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press.’ ”
May also glossed over the comments in The Sun, saying that her deal provided a platform for an ambitious free-trade deal.
Trump’s remarks to The Sun were the most biting any U.S. president has ever made on a visit to Britain. However, under the blue skies of the Chequers garden, he said their relationship was “the highest level of special.”
However, while Trump and May exchanged warm words, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the U.S. president through central London, bringing much of the British capital to a standstill. It was one of the more than 100 demonstrations planned across the country during his four-day stay.
“The message we came here to give today is that Trump is not welcome in Britain,” said shopkeeper Grish Gregoran, 58, who took the day off to attend. “We wanted to embarrass him and I think we have done that today.”
Trump has also frequently angered British politicians and has been involved in social-media spats with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who he said had “done a very bad job on terrorism.”
Late last year, May herself criticized Trump for retweeting a message by a member of a British far-right group, and the speaker of parliament has said that the president would not be welcome to address the chamber.
After leaving Chequers, Trump was scheduled to have tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, before flying to one of his golf courses in Scotland.
At the end of his visit, he flies to Helsinki for talks with Putin, where he said he would bring up the issue of nuclear disarmament.
“We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but it makes it very hard to do something with Russia because, anything you do, it’s like, ‘Russia, oh he loves Russia,’ ” Trump said. “I love the United States but I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries.”