President Trump sought to mend fences with British Prime Minister Theresa May Friday, lavishing her with compliments one day after he was quoted in a British tabloid questioning her approach to “Brexit” and threatening to upend their trade relationship.
Trump, who prides himself on never apologizing, said he offered something of an apology to May, although he largely blamed the Sun, U.S. media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, for leaving out the positive things he said.
The interview has overshadowed much of his first official trip to Britain in capitalized headlines and inordinate TV coverage.
“When I saw her this morning, I said, ‘I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you,’” Trump related during a joint news conference at the prime minister’s country home, Chequers. “‘She said, don’t worry, it’s only the press.’ I thought that was very — I thought that was very professional.”
Trump also backed away from his criticism of how May is handling Britain’s exit from the European Union. He said she had disregarded his advice to be more “brutal.” But he acknowledged Brexit is a “very complicated negotiation and not an easy negotiation, that’s for sure.”
May told the gathered reporters: “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.”
Trump is deeply unpopular in Britain, and has largely avoided London altogether, where a large blimp mocking him was flying above mass protests on Friday.
May had been looking to Trump in this visit to help her sell her Brexit plan by promising appealing bilateral trade deals for after Britain leaves the European Union.
The Sun interview seemed to dash those hopes. Trump was quoted saying that if May follows through on her compromise Brexit plan, maintaining close ties to the European Union, “that would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States.”
He added: “I give our relationship with the U.K., in terms of grade, the highest level of special.”
May’s advisers said the news conference was a welcome relief — and that the trip was somewhat salvaged.
Trump still reiterated his praise for Boris Johnson, May’s rival, who resigned as foreign secretary this week in protest over May’s Brexit approach. Trump explained his comments about Johnson to the Sun in terms of himself, as he often does.
“I said he’ll be a great prime minister. He’s been very nice to me. He’s been saying very good things about me as president,” Trump said.
Johnson last month said that Trump would do a better job than May has done negotiating Brexit.
Trump and May, who were seen holding hands while strolling around the estate, differed in both substance and style in the news conference.
Trump, whose wife is a European immigrant to the United States, reiterated his claim that immigration is hurting Europe. He also argued that U.S. laws on immigration were too weak and said that “we have laws that are so bad I don’t even call them laws.”
“It’s changing the culture, I think it’s a very negative thing for Europe,” he said, noting it was not necessarily politically correct to say that, “but I’ll say it and I’ll say it loud.”
May, standing nearby, disagreed. “Overall immigration has been good for the U.K.,” she said. “It’s brought people with different backgrounds, different outlooks here to the U.K., and has — and we’ve seen them contributing to our society and to our economy.”
The two have previously squabbled over immigration, as recently as the Group of Seven meeting last month in Canada, aides said.