LONDON — Donald Trump warned Theresa May not to impose any “restrictions” on the U.K.s ability to strike a trade deal with the U.S. after Brexit, as the fallout over his bombshell attack on the prime minister continued to shake his first official visit to the country Friday.
In a press conference at Chequers, the U.K. prime ministers country retreat 40 miles north of London, the U.S. president insisted he did not criticize May in his interview with the Sun, despite claiming her latest Brexit proposals did not deliver on the result of the EU referendum in 2016 and would “kill” the chances of a future trade agreement.
Speaking alongside May after bilateral talks Friday, Trump said he had been given assurances from the prime minister that a free-trade deal after Brexit would be possible even if the U.K. adopts, wholesale, the EUs rules on goods and food standards.
Despite some deeply awkward moments for May, who was forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump while he boasted of the spending commitments he had won from NATO allies (an account of this weeks summit that several leaders have contradicted) and said immigration was “changing the culture” of Europe, on Brexit — her most pressing policy concern — the press conference went as well as Downing Street could have hoped after the disastrous Sun interview overshadowed the trip.
Trump not only back-tracked on his claim a U.S. trade deal was dead in the water, but also insisted that May could not “walk away” from the negotiation with the EU — precisely what some of her Brexiteer rivals are urging her to do if the EU does not change tack.
Pressed on whether the U.K.s commitment to maintaining its standards for farm products — which are aligned with Europe, but which would limit the potential for U.S. imports, May said: “There will be questions on some of the trade issues about the standards we have here for certain products and how we want to deal with those in the trade deal, that will be a matter for the negotiations.”
However, despite adopting more diplomatic language than in his interview — and praising May as an “incredible woman” — Trump did not retreat from his warning that whatever Brexit deal the prime minister pursues it must not limit the scope of trade with the U.S.
Trump also said he apologized to May over the Sun report but the U.K. prime minister told him “not to worry, its only the press.” He said the story was “fake news” because it did not include his positive comments about the prime minister.
All smiles? Theresa May and husband Philip welcome Donald and Melania Trump to Blenheim Palace Thursday evening in Woodstock, England | WPA pool photo by Geoff Pugh via Getty Images
In response to a question from the BBC, Trump said: “The only thing I ask of Theresa is to make sure we can trade, we dont have any restrictions.” He added: “I believe after speaking to the prime minister it will absolutely be possible.”
Trump also insisted that the prime minister was doing “a terrific job.” He said May was “a tough negotiator — a very very smart, determined person.” He added: “Shes a very smart, very tough, very capable person. I would much rather have her as my friend than my enemy.”
May replied: “We are friends Mr President.”
In Trumps opening remarks, he attempted to address his bombshell interview. “I dont know what you are going to do [on Brexit],” he said. “Whatever you do is okay with me. Just make sure we can trade together, thats all that matters.”
Attempting to defuse the spat which has overshadowed Trumps trip, May also insisted her new Brexit proposal would not block a future trade deal with the U.S. “There will be no limit to the possibility of doing trade deals around the rest of the world,” May said.
In the interview, Trump said: “I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didnt agree, she didnt listen to me. She wanted to go a different route.” Asked at Chequers about his advice to the prime minister, Trump said it was probably “too brutal” for her, but added: “Maybe someday she will do what I suggested.”
Trump also admitted saying former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister but he added that was not meant as a criticism of May. “This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job,” he said.