LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump worked on Friday to repair the damage after she was left with a deepening political crisis and a diplomatic embarrassment by a bombshell interview with The Sun that was published on Thursday.
At a news conference at her country estate, Chequers, May accentuated the positive, saying “no two countries do more together than ours to keep their people safe and prosperous,” and gave no hint of anger about the interview that seriously undermined her.
With the “special relationship” thrown into doubt by the interview, Trump said that ties between the two were at the “highest level of special” and said “this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job.”
Those comments were sharply at odds with his views expressed in his interview with The Sun, in which Trump castigated May for her approach to the British withdrawal from the European Union and warned that it could jeopardise a much-sought trade deal for Britain, but on Friday he expressed the opposite view.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Trump said, “but whatever you do is OK with me, that’s their decision.” He later remarked that it was a “tough decision,” but emphasised that he wanted a fair deal on trade, complaining that the European Union treats the United States “horribly” and complaining that there are “barriers that are beyond belief”.
And, for her part, May, whose grip on power has been called into question as she tries to determine the course of her country’s departure from the European Union, used the occasion to defend her approach.
“This does deliver on the vote of the British people. The British people voted to leave the European Union,” she said. “As we leave the European Union we will be delivering what people voted on: an end to free movement, an end to sending vast amounts of money to the European Union, an end to jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
Trump also complained that the interview with The Sun failed to properly capture the full nature of his views of Brexit and the prime minister. “I didn’t criticise the prime minister,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the prime minister. Unfortunately, there was a story that was done which was generally fine but it didn’t put in what I said about the prime minister.”
Trump caused turmoil at a Nato summit a day earlier, complaining about the military spending commitments of alliance members, and he specifically cited May’s support in that area on Friday.
“The prime minister was right there with me,” he said.
Trump will head to Helsinki on Monday for meetings with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and he said he would raise the question of election meddling, but he also seemed to suggest that there would be little to learn.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee I did it, I did it, you got me.’ I don’t think you’ll have any Perry Mason here,” he said, referring to a fictional lawyer on an American television show. “But I absolutely will ask the question.”
May is hoping to lay a groundwork for a trade deal with the United States, as she tries to negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union.
But in his interview with The Sun, published on Thursday night, Trump said that if the prime minister persisted in seeking a soft exit from the EU, sticking close to its rules on goods, she could forget about a separate pact with the United States.
“If they do that,” the paper quoted him as saying, “then their trade deal with the US will probably not be made.”
Hours before the interview was published, Trump was asked about Brexit at a news conference and said, “It’s not for me to say about the UK.”
But speaking to The Sun, he described the prime minister’s approach to Brexit as “very unfortunate,” and said, “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”
He had much warmer words for Boris Johnson, the ambitious British politician who just quit as foreign minister in an open break with May, and is seen as one of her primary rivals within the Conservative Party. Johnson, he said, would “make a great prime minister.”
For the president to criticise and politically undercut one of his closest international allies, on her home turf, is an extraordinary breach of protocol, but if anything seems clear at this point, it is that there is no reason to expect the expected.
The response in Britain
On Friday, May’s hardline opponents used Trump’s comments to bolster their argument that the government’s plans for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, should be torn up in favour of a cleaner break with the bloc.
Speaking to the BBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative lawmaker and one of May’s pro-Brexit critics, argued that Trump had been “perfectly reasonable,” simply reflecting the reality of the government’s proposals.
Alan Duncan, a minister of state at the Foreign Office, suggested that Trump had spoken to The Sun before reading the details of May’s latest Brexit plan, which aims to keep some close economic ties to the European Union.
But Simon Fraser, formerly one of Britain’s most senior diplomats, described the president’s “patronising put-down” of May as “wholly outrageous”.
“Normally I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May,” Emily Thornberry, a foreign affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, told Sky News. “I don’t think that feeling sorry for a prime minister is a very good look, but this morning I feel sorry for her.”