US President Donald Trump on Friday played down his extraordinary attack on Britain’s plans for Brexit, praising Prime Minister Theresa May and insisting bilateral relations “have never been stronger”, even as tens of thousands protested in London against his visit.
Trump’s first official trip to Britain was overshadowed by his warning that May’s plans for closer ties with the European Union would “kill” a future US trade deal, echoing concerns among eurosceptics in her Conservative party.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, a US grand jury on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the November 2016 presidential election, following charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The indictments came just three days before Trump is scheduled to meet with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
As Trump arrived in Scotland later Friday, however, the White House confirmed that the Helsinki meeting would go ahead.
“It’s on,” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said.
Trump later traveled to one of his Scottish golf courses, Turnberry.
Following talks at May’s country retreat of Chequers, Trump suggested he might have been hasty in his comments over her negotiating strategy for leaving the EU.
“Whatever you do is okay with us, just make sure we can trade together, that’s all that matters,” he told May at a press conference in the grounds of the 16th-century manor house, miles away from the colorful crowds denouncing his own domestic policies.
“The United States looks forward to finalizing a great bilateral trade deal,” he said, and repeatedly praised May’s leadership, saying she was a “terrific woman”.
Trump endorses May rival
Just hours earlier, The Sun tabloid published a bombshell interview with the president in which he suggested the prime minister’s Brexit proposal was not what voters wanted.
He said he had advised her to take another path, adding that Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign minister this week in protest at the plan, would make “a great prime minister”.
Trump denied that he had criticised May, suggesting there was an element of “fake news” in the report — even though The Sun released audio recordings of his remarks.
His interview drew outrage among British politicians, who accused him of being “determined to insult” May after 18 months of testy relations between the pair.
It also fired up demonstrations in London, where organizers estimated upwards of 250,000 people took to the streets.
Chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!”, they flew a huge balloon of the president depicted as a crying baby outside the Houses of Parliament.
Even Londoners who did not join the protest, only stopping to take in the mass of people, placards and sloganeering, seemed supportive of the demonstrations.
“He brings it on himself — it’s like having a juvenile in charge of a superpower,” said construction worker Dan Kelly, 47.
Kill trade plans
Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016, but after years of fighting within the government, only on Thursday published a detailed plan for future relations.
The offer to follow EU rules in trade in goods sparked outrage among eurosceptics who want a clean break, with Trump appearing to back them.
His negative comments about a UK-US trade deal — viewed as one of the main benefits of leaving the EU by Brexit supporters — saw the pound fall, although it later recovered its losses.
They also fuelled talk of rebellion in May’s Conservative party following the resignations of Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis over the plan.
But Trump said Friday that after speaking with May’s officials and trade experts a UK-US trade deal “will be possible”.
May confirmed they had agreed to seek an “ambitious” free trade agreement, adding: “I’m clear our plan delivers on what the British people voted for.”
Even without opposition from Trump, the prime minister still faces a major challenge to get agreement at home and the plan agreed with the EU.
Talks are due to resume in Brussels next week.
Tough on Russia
The two leaders also emphasized their continued cooperation on defense and security, after earlier watching a display of special forces from both countries at the military academy at Sandhurst.
Trump thanked May for her support at a testy NATO summit this week in Brussels, where he subjected America’s other allies to a roasting over their defense spending.
The president followed his Chequers meeting by having tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle alongside First Lady Melania Trump.
May said they had agreed to engage with Russia with “strength and unity”, and Trump said he has been “tougher on Russia than anybody”.
The president’s mother was born on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, and May gave him an illustrated ancestral chart of his Scottish heritage as a gift.
She gave Melania, who met military veterans and schoolchildren in London on Friday with May’s husband Philip, a bespoke perfume.