Politics

Trump Walks Back Threat to Blow Up U.S.-British Trade Talks

British government ‘is keen’ to trade with its former colonies, May says

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, front left, and her husband Philip May, back right, greet President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump at Blenheim Palace on Thursday in Woodstock, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

President Trump walked back his comments to The Sun newspaper in which he voiced opposition to UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s angling for a so-called "soft Brexit."

“I don’t know what they’re going to do, but whatever you do is fine with me,” he told May. “Just make sure that we can trade together. That’s all that matters.”

Despite President Trump’s comments to the contrary to a British newspaper, May said the United States and United Kingdom plan to pursue an “ambitious” trade deal once her country formally exits the European Union.

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The two addressed reporters after several hours of meetings that followed the Thursday publication by The Sun newspaper of an interview in which Trump criticized May’s emerging Brexit approach. May appears headed for a so-called “soft Brexit,” meaning the UK would retain closer economic ties with the EU than previously expected.

The U.S. president told The Sun that kind of arrangement is “a much different deal than the people voted on.”

“I would have done it much differently,” he told the newspaper. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree. She didn’t listen to me. She wanted to go a different route.”

He also delivered a threat in that interview, saying a “soft Brexit” — due to its UK-EU close ties — likely would spell the end to hopes for a U.S.-British trade deal because “we have enough difficulty with the European Union," which he said has “not treated the United States fairly on trading.”

But on Friday, Trump took a second swing at walking back his Sun interview once reporters started asking the duo questions, saying after speaking with May and her trade advisers, he now thinks a U.S.-UK trade pact even with a “soft Breixt” would “absolutely be possible.”

As often is the case, Trump was more gushing in person toward someone he had criticized previously, either in a media interview or tweet. He criticized The Sun for excluding what he said were the “tremendous things” he said about May during the interview.

He acknowledged telling the newspaper he believes her top political nemesis, Boris Johnson, would make a strong prime minister.

“I also said this incredible woman is doing a fantastic job,” he said, pointing to May. "I would give our relationship the highest level of special. ... They are very special people. It is a very special country."

Of the Brexit advice he mentioned to the newspaper, Trump said May seems to have found it too “brutal.”

May told reporters she plans to adhere to many of the promises the UK government made, including to “have an independent trade policy” once the country is out of the EU. She said the UK “is keen” to trade with the United States.

After telling The Sun he believes Europe is “losing its culture” by allowing in migrants from other regions, Trump on Friday said immigration “has not been good” for the U.S.

Standing next to Trump on Friday, May said “Overall, immigration has been good for the UK.”

Trump vowed to press Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Monday summit about his government’s interference in the 2016 American election — though he expressed doubt Putin would come clean.

“I will absolutely bring that up. I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,’” he told reporters. “I don’t think you’ll have any Perry Mason here. I don’t think. But you never know what happens. But I’ll very firmly ask the question.”

Trump contended, amid European leaders' concerns about his criticism of America's allies, that his administration has been tougher on Russian than previous U.S. administrations.

Earlier Friday, Trump told reporters the U.S.-UK relationship “is very, very strong” and “very, very good.”

Trump used part of his opening remarks to reflect on the week’s NATO summit, repeating his disputed claim that he secured an agreement from the other 29 members to increase their yearly budgetary contributions in a “much more timely manner.” But French President Emmanuel Macron and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg say that did not happen, telling reporters Thursday the allies merely reiterated a 2014 pledge to all get to 2 percent of their GDP to NATO by 2024, vows made under the Obama administration.

Congressional Democrats have lost their patience with Trump after his bombastic antics earlier this week during a NATO summit in Belgium and Sun comments.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., criticized the president for “giving the back of the hand” to America’s allies, adding he is concerned about what Trump might give up to Putin on Monday.

“If I had my druthers, I’d have the president clearly delineate” what he intends to discuss with the Russian strongman, Menendez told CNN. “The president wants to embrace Putin, and he is doing the work of Putin in terms of creating chaos in the Western world.”

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Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., tweeted Friday that “Trump is the Michael Jordan of diplomacy... The baseball Jordan.” (When the basketball legend took a brief retirement to play minor league baseball, he was a meek hitter and a below-average fielder.)

Meeks offered some advice for the British PM ahead of the joint news conference: “Just grit your teeth and pitch, May. Only two more years.”

Perhaps. But it will take more than snarky tweets for Meeks’ party to ensure there are not six more years of Trump’s presidency.

One recent poll showed Trump — despite his turbulent first 19 months in office — only trailing a generic Democrat by eight percentage points. Many polls during the 2016 campaign had him down by a larger margin to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He won an easy Electoral College victory anyway.

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