Trump vows 'great' trade deal with UK, abruptly changing tack on May's Brexit plan

WINDSOR CASTLE, England, July 13 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States and Britain could secure a "great" post-Brexit trade deal, lavishing praise on Prime Minister Theresa May and contradicting his own withering assessment of her strategy publicized hours earlier.

Fresh from sending NATO into crisis talks and ahead of a summit with Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, Trump shocked Britain's political establishment when he criticized May's plans for ties with the European Union after Britain leaves in March.

In a newspaper interview published just hours before holding talks with May, Trump said her Brexit strategy would "kill" any chance of a trade deal with the U.S. and said she had not listened to his advice on how to negotiate with the EU.

But, as the two leaders stood together for a press conference in the garden of May's grand 16th-century official residence Chequers, Trump said the British leader was doing a "fantastic job," added it was up to her how to conduct Brexit, and that a free trade deal was very much on the table.

Relations had never been more special, he said, and any criticism was "fake news."

"Once the Brexit process is concluded and perhaps the UK has left the EU, I don't know what they're going to do but whatever you do is OK with me, that's your decision," Trump said.

"Whatever you do is OK with us, just make sure we can trade together, that's all that matters. The United States looks forward to finalizing a great bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom. This is an incredible opportunity for our two countries and we will seize it fully," he said.

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President Trump and Theresa May in joint Chequers press conference
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President Trump and Theresa May in joint Chequers press conference
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May poses for photographs with U.S. President Donald Trump at Chequers near Aylesbury, Britain July 13, 2018. Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets U.S. President Donald Trump at Chequers near Aylesbury, Britain July 13, 2018. Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a joint news conference in the grounds of Chequers near Aylesbury, Britain July 13, 2018. Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk in the grounds of Chequers near Aylesbury, Britain July 13, 2018. Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk away after holding a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May prior to a joint press conference at Chequers, near Aylesbury, Britain July 13, 2018. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold a press conference after their meeting at Chequers in Buckinghamshire, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
British Prime Minister Theresa May listens as she and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a press conference after their meeting at Chequers in Buckinghamshire, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump (L) gestures as he speaks next to Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during a press conference following their meeting at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, near Ellesborough, northwest of London on July 13, 2018 on the second day of Trump's UK visit. - US President Donald Trump launched an extraordinary attack on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy, plunging the transatlantic 'special relationship' to a new low as they prepared to meet Friday on the second day of his tumultuous trip to Britain. (Photo by Jack Taylor / POOL / Getty Images) (Photo credit should read JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a press conference with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) following their meeting at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, near Ellesborough, northwest of London on July 13, 2018 on the second day of Trump's UK visit. - US President Donald Trump launched an extraordinary attack on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy, plunging the transatlantic 'special relationship' to a new low as they prepared to meet Friday on the second day of his tumultuous trip to Britain. (Photo by Jack Taylor / POOL / Getty Images) (Photo credit should read JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images)
AYLESBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 13: Prime Minister Theresa May holds bi-lateral talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at Chequers on July 13, 2018 in Aylesbury, England. US President, Donald Trump, held bi-lateral talks with British Prime Minister, Theresa May at her grace-and-favour country residence, Chequers. Earlier British newspaper, The Sun, revealed criticisms of Theresa May and her Brexit policy made by President Trump in an exclusive interview. Later today The President and First Lady will join Her Majesty for tea at Windsor Castle. (Photo by Jack Taylor-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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At the same location a week ago, May finally won agreement for her Brexit plans from her cabinet after two years of internal wrangling, but within days, two senior ministers had quit, departures which Trump said earlier in the week had left Britain in "turmoil."

Some lawmakers in her deeply divided Conservative Party have cast May's "business-friendly" Brexit plan as a betrayal that would leave Britain too close to the EU and warned that she might face a leadership challenge.

May's formal proposals were published on Thursday, but hours later the Sun newspaper published an interview with Trump where he appeared to side with the prime minister's critics.

"If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal," he told the Sun. "I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn't listen to me."

Asked about that interview, Trump said he had not criticized May, lavishing praise on "a terrific woman," who was smart, tough and capable.

"This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job," he said. "She's a total professional because 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'."

 

"HIGHEST LEVEL OF SPECIAL"

May, likewise, glossed over the comments in the Sun, saying her deal provided a platform for an ambitious free trade deal.

Trump's remarks to the Sun were the most biting any U.S. president has ever made on visit to Britain. However, under the blue skies of the Chequers' garden, he said their relationship was "the highest level of special."

However, while Trump and May exchanged warm words, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the U.S. president through central London, bringing much of the British capital to a standstill. It was one of the more than 100 demonstrations planned across the country during his four-day stay.

"The message we came here to give today is that Trump is not welcome in Britain," said shopkeeper Grish Gregoran, 58, who took the day off to attend. "We wanted to embarrass him and I think we have done that today.

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Best images from UK protest against US President Donald Trump
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Best images from UK protest against US President Donald Trump
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
A demonstrator wearing a cap takes part in an anti-Trump protest in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
A demonstrator carrying an anti-Trump billboard walks along a street during a protest in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
A man who gave his name as Kevin (L) and was born in the USA but living in London for 21 years makes a protest against the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump outside Windsor Castle in Windsor, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs
Women, from a number of different protest groups, take part in an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Women, from a number of different protest groups, take part in an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Women, from a number of different protest groups, take part in an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Women and men, from a number of different protest groups, take part in an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
A protester carries an umbrella during an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Women, from a number of different protest groups, take part in an anti-Trump demonstration in central London, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A balloon portraying U.S. President Donald Trump as a baby is attached to a man's rucksack during a protest in Parliament Square, during the visit by Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in London, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Police officers talk to demonstrators preparing to protest in Parliament Square, during the visit by U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in London, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Police officers talk to demonstrators preparing to protest in Parliament Square, during the visit by U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in London, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators prepare to protest in Parliament Square, during the visit by U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump in London, Britain July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Pro-Trump demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Demonstrators protest outside the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are attending a dinner with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Demonstrators protest next to the specially erected fence surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence, Winfield House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are staying, in London, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest next to the specially erected fence surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence, Winfield House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are staying, in London, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest next to the specially erected fence surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence, Winfield House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are staying, in London, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest next to the specially erected fence surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence, Winfield House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are staying, in London, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators protest next to the specially erected fence surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence, Winfield House, where U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump are staying, in London, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
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Trump has also frequently angered British politicians and has been involved in social media spats with London's Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan who Trump said had "done a very bad job on terrorism."

Late last year, May herself criticized Trump for retweeting a message by a member of a British far-right group, and the speaker of parliament has said the president would not be welcome to address the chamber.

After leaving Chequers, Trump traveled to Windsor Castle to have tea with Queen Elizabeth. He was heralded by military bands on his arrival at the 92-year-old monarch's home where her grandson Prince Harry married U.S. actress Meghan Markle in May.

He later flew to Scotland where he is staying at his Trump Turnberry golf course. The protests reached him there, when a paraglider bearing the logo of environmental campaign group Greenpeace swooped within some few hundred yards of the president as he stood outside the golf course's hotel, television pictures showed.

He will stay in Scotland until Sunday when he heads to Helsinki for talks with Russia's Putin. Trump said he would bring up the issue of nuclear disarmament with Putin.

However his trip to meet Putin is set to be overshadowed by news that a U.S. federal grand jury has indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges of hacking the computer networks of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

"We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but it makes it very hard to do something with Russia because, anything you do, it's like: 'Russia, oh he loves Russia'," Trump said at the press conference before news of the indictment.

"I love the United States but I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries."

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Additional reporting by William James, Kate Holton, Andrew MacAskill, Sarah Young and Paul Sandle; editing by Larry King, Kevin Liffey, David Stamp, William Maclean)

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