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Trump praises British PM Theresa May after criticizing her in newspaper interview

U.S. President Donald Trump’s first official visit to Britain lasted barely two days, but he managed to leave behind a perplexing trail of mixed messages, confusing signals on Brexit and a British Prime Minister scrambling to cope with the political fallout.

Mr. Trump, an ardent Brexit supporter, arrived in London on Thursday after a tumult of criticism levelled at Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of Brexit. By the time he’d left on Friday, Mr. Trump had changed course and praised Ms. May as smart, tough, determined, terrific, capable and “a total pro.”

“I would much rather have her as my friend than my enemy, that I can tell you,” he told reporters during a news conference with Ms. May during which he also described U.S.-Britain relations as “the highest level of special.”

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But there was still a lot of confusion. Mr. Trump said he’d offered a “suggestion” to Ms. May about how she should negotiate with the European Union, but he didn’t say what he’d advised. Instead, he cryptically said that she’d found his proposal “too brutal.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk to a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018.

HANNAH MCKAY/Reuters

“I could fully understand why she thought it was a little bit tough. And maybe, some day, she’ll do that. If they don’t make the right deal, she might very well do what I suggested that she might want to do,” he said.

When it was suggested that he was referring to simply walking away from the talks, Mr. Trump said no. “You can’t walk away because if she walks away, that means she’s stuck. But you can do other things. She can do what my suggestion was.”

At another point, Mr. Trump talked about Britain “perhaps” leaving the EU, which prompted Ms. May to correct him by saying flatly: “We will be leaving the European Union and we are leaving on the 29th of March, 2019.”

It all made for a perplexing and politically tricky visit for Ms. May, who was already reeling from a backlash within her Conservative Party caucus over a new Brexit plan she announced last week that included a customs arrangement with the EU. The proposal has infuriated hard-line Brexit MPs. They have accused Ms. May of going soft on Brexit and argued her strategy would keep the country too aligned with the EU. That alignment, they added, would prevent Britain from signing trade deals with other countries after Brexit.

Two senior cabinet ministers, including foreign secretary Boris Johnson, had resigned in protest of the strategy just days before Mr. Trump arrived, and several backbench MPs were in open revolt. The EU has also been cool to the idea and negotiations resume next week with only months to go before a deal has to be struck.

Mr. Trump stoked the flames of the discontent in an interview with The Sun that was published on Friday just hours before the U.S. President and Ms. May were to hold lengthy discussions at the Prime Minister’s country retreat called Chequers. In the interview, he ripped her strategy and accused her of failing to respect the results of the 2016 referendum, which saw 52 per cent of voters support leaving the EU.

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“It was not the deal that was in the referendum,” he told the newspaper. He also said that if Ms. May pursued her strategy, the United States probably wouldn’t sign a trade deal with Britain. “I would have done it much differently,” he added. “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. … I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way. And that is fine.” As a final insult, he praised Mr. Johnson, saying he would make a good prime minister.

The interview was seized upon by Ms. May’s critics, who said it confirmed their fears about her strategy. Mr. Trump’s intervention was “very important, because if you can’t do a trade deal with your closest ally, then who can you do a trade deal with?” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP who has been among the sharpest critics of Ms. May’s plan.

By Friday afternoon, Mr. Trump appeared to backtrack, saying he’d had an opportunity to learn more about Ms. May’s plan from her advisers and that he now felt a trade deal with the United States would be possible. He also heaped praise on Ms. May and tried to play down his comments about Mr. Johnson, with limited success.

“I said, he’ll be a great prime minister,” Mr. Trump said. “He’s been very nice to me. He’s been saying very good things about me as President. … But Boris Johnson, I think would be a great prime minister.” He quickly pointed to Ms. May and added: “I also said that this incredible woman, right here, is doing a fantastic job, a great job. And I mean that.” He also offered Ms. May an apology, telling reporters: “When I saw her this morning, I said, ‘I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press.’ ”

Ms. May also tried to right the ship, pointing out repeatedly that Mr. Trump now agreed with her that a trade deal with the United States will be possible under her strategy.

During his visit, Mr. Trump managed to avoid thousands of protesters in London, Scotland and around the country. On Friday, several thousand people marched through central London to Trafalgar Square in protest against Mr. Trump’s presence in Britain.

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