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President Trump praises British Prime Minister May one day after report criticizing her approach to Brexit

Here are key moments from President Trump's news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Britain on July 13. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

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, 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.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May and President Trump spoke at a news conference July 13 at Chequers as part of Trump's visit to Britain. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump and May visited a military base early Friday and had lunch 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, that 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 as farm animals brayed in the distance, 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. 

Trump again blasted German Chancellor Angela Merkel for working with Russia on a natural-gas pipeline, following his incendiary charge at the NATO meeting in Brussels this week that Germany was “captive to Russia.”

“I think it’s a horrible thing that Germany’s doing,” he said.

May said only that the project would be discussed further within the European Union.

Trump was meandering, combative and inaccurate in many of his answers — attacking “fake news” CNN, referencing his uncle “John Trump at MIT” to crow about his understanding of nuclear weapons and repeatedly lampooning President Barack Obama, his predecessor. He again falsely stated that he had predicted Brexit one day before it happened, while visiting his Turnberry golf club, and said that the United States was responsible for 90 percent of NATO spending. (The United States accounted for 68.7 percent of NATO members’ combined defense spending last year, reflecting its superpower status and 3.57 percent of gross domestic product.) Trump also overstated the trade deficit with China and the number of troops in Germany.

“I would call it the rigged witch hunt,” he said at one point of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, dissecting the testimony of FBI agent Peter Strzok and lamenting that he didn’t watch more of it Thursday because of the time difference.

May was far more precise and short in her answers, did not attack political foes or the media and was determined to avoid all criticism of Trump — even as she faced nonstop questions about his dismissals of her.

Trump said he plans to raise a range of topics in his summit Monday with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki, including nuclear proliferation, which Trump said he considers the largest problem facing the world.

He declined to say whether he would make a deal with Putin on Syria. Some are fearful that Trump will pull troops out of the region.

The president also pledged to raise the issue of election meddling during the summit and said he would tell Putin not to interfere in future U.S. elections.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,’ ” Trump said. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?”

He said “we’ll see” about Crimea, which Putin illegally annexed in 2014 to the derision of the world. Trump said again that he thought he could get along with Putin. 

“This was an Obama disaster. And I think if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea,” Trump said, fending off a tough question about Putin’s annexation — the main point of contention for NATO allies — by blaming his predecessor. 

Dawsey and Booth reported from London. Karla Adam in London and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.

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