Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and President Trump answer questions at a press conference Friday after their meeting at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, England. Jack Taylor/Pool Photo via AP

ELLESBOROUGH, England — President Trump on Friday sought to undo the damage he’d done to British Prime Minister Theresa May, lavishing her with compliments one day after he was quoted in a British tabloid dismissing her approach to Brexit, praising one of her foes and threatening to upend their trade relationship – while boasting that she would have been better off listening to him.

Trump, who prides himself on never apologizing, came close to offering something of an apology for his unvarnished remarks. But he largely blamed the Sun, media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper, for leaving out the positive things he’d said about May. The interview overshadowed much of his first official trip to Britain in capitalized headlines and a torrent of 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 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 that Brexit is a “very complicated negotiation and not an easy negotiation, that’s for sure.”

“Whatever you’re going to do is okay with us. Just make sure we can trade together,” Trump said.

May also downplayed Trump’s remarks in the Sun, even while her staff was stunned and members of her party complained about how rude a guest Trump was.

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 and May visited a military base early Friday and had lunch together at Chequers. Then he left to have tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.

The body language of that highly symbolic meeting was always going to be closely scrutinized. It didn’t go without notice that, even though it’s not mandatory, Trump and the first lady did not bow or curtsy when they greeted the queen. Later, during an inspection of guardsmen, Trump momentarily eclipsed the queen, moving in front of her and then stopping, apparently looking to see where she was. The queen navigated her way around him. The British press was divided over whether Trump simply stumbled over a bit of royal stagecraft or breached protocol.

Trump is deeply unpopular in Britain and has largely avoided London, where a large blimp mocking him flew above mass protests Friday.

Still, his comments in the Sun caused May intense embarrassment in a week when her cabinet is beset by division, her compromise plan to exit the European Union is being excoriated by her domestic critics, and rebels in her Conservative Party are threatening a no-confidence vote.

She had been looking to Trump in this visit to help her sell her Brexit plan by promising generous bilateral trade deals for Britain after it leaves the European Union.

The Sun interview seemed to dash those hopes. Trump was quoted saying that if May followed 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.”

But at the news conference Friday, Trump affirmed, “We want to trade with the U.K., and the U.K. wants to trade with us.”

He added, “I give our relationship with the U.K., in terms of grade, the highest level of special.”

May’s advisers said that the news conference was a welcome relief – and that the trip was salvaged from disaster.

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 to the Sun about Johnson 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 country 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 – legal or otherwise, he did not say – is hurting Europe. He also argued that U.S. laws on immigration are too weak and said, “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 that it was not politically correct to say so, “but I’ll say it and I’ll say it loud.”

May, standing at a lectern beside Trump, 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.

filed under: