ELLESBOROUGH, England—President Donald Trump affirmed his commitment to striking a trade deal with the U.K., seeking to walk back earlier comments in which he criticized Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach to Brexit and said her plan would “kill” the chances of such a deal.
His softening of his criticism saved Mrs. May some embarrassment at a perilous time for the British leader, as she struggles to hold together a government riven by her plan to closely follow European Union regulations.
But the president, whose visit drew thousands of protesters in London and other places in the country, didn’t back off other comments, made in an interview with a British tabloid, that implicitly criticized Mrs. May. Brexit hard-liners continued to insist his comments would add pressure on Mrs. May to harden her stance in negotiations with the EU.
At a joint news conference Friday, Mrs. May said she and Mr. Trump had agreed to pursue an “ambitious” trade deal between the two nations that “works for both countries right across the economies.”
Mr. Trump also said he was open to pursuing a deal once the U.K. leaves the European Union. He signaled an openness to Mrs. May’s approach to Brexit. “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but whatever you do is OK with me,” he said. “That’s your decision.” He said the relationship between the two countries has “never been stronger.”
The exchange was sharply at odds with his interview with the Sun, published late Thursday, in which he said also praised former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who quit the government this week over Brexit. After the interview was published, Mr. Trump said, he told Mrs. May: “I wanted to apologize.” He said she responded: “Don’t worry, it’s only the press.”
The apology was a rare concession for the president, who in the face of criticism is more apt to double down than to walk back his comments, and who often instructs aides to never apologize for their actions.
It also helped to mend the strained relationship between the two leaders. Mrs. May is seeking to strengthen ties with the U.S. as the U.K. turns away from the EU. Mr. Trump is one of the few world leaders who supported Brexit.
Earlier in the day, the two leaders viewed a joint military demonstration by U.S. and U.K. forces and met at Chequers, the U.K. prime minister’s official country house, for a working lunch. Mr. Trump and first lady Melania Trump later traveled to Windsor Castle to meet Queen Elizabeth II, where the queen and the president inspected the Guard of Honour and had tea. In the evening, the couple left for Scotland to stay at one of Mr. Trump’s golf courses for the weekend, before his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
The U.S. leader, who was repeatedly questioned by reporters about why he was critical of the prime minister while on U.K. soil, spent much of the news conference heaping praise on Mrs. May, describing her as a “tough” negotiator and calling their relationship “the highest level of special.” While seeking to project unity, the leaders offered divergent views on the value of immigration in Europe. “It’s been very bad for Europe,” Mr. Trump said.
The president arrived in London on Thursday after a contentious North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels, and the extravagant gala dinner hosted by Mrs. May at Blenheim Palace was expected to be a more mellow event. But the evening was upended by the Sun’s interview, published shortly after Mr. Trump departed the dinner.
Mr. Trump on Friday said the Sun didn’t include the positive things he said about the embattled British leader and called the reporting “fake news,” but he reiterated that Mrs. May should take his advice on how to best negotiate with the EU. The Sun posted extensive audio excerpts on its web site but not the full interview.
Downing Street didn’t comment on the interview, but officials and diplomats said they were surprised and angered by the move. The Sun and The Wall Street Journal are both owned by News Corp.
Trump Visits the U.K.: Photos
The president sought to project unity with Prime Minister Theresa May after criticizing her approach to Brexit, and following a tense NATO summit
The president’s comment that Mrs. May’s Brexit plan would “probably end a major trade relationship with the United States” came after Woody Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., last week described the president as eager to strike a trade deal between the two nations. “He’s really ready to step up on that the minute we get the go-ahead to do it,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Trump largely traveled by helicopter on his visit, avoiding central London where protesters on Friday inflated a balloon depicting Mr. Trump as an orange baby outside the Houses of Parliament. Tens of thousands of protesters marched against the president in London in the afternoon, and others held demonstrations outside Chequers and Windsor Castle and in other parts of the U.K.
In the Sun interview, Mr. Trump said he had been made to feel “unwelcome” by the protests. “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London,” he said.
One protester in London, Alex Belcher, a 19-year-old student from Essex, said that he understood the U.K. needed to do a trade deal with the U.S., but that there is a limit to the welcome the U.K. should show him. “Rolling out the red carpet like this for someone who has done so many bad things—it’s laughable,” Mr. Belcher said.
Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement and an ally of Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump’s comments to the Sun are likely to add pressure on Mrs. May to change course.
“Middle England has been very angry over the past week about what they see as May’s betrayal,” said Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement.
—Will Horner in London contributed to this article.
Appeared in the July 14, 2018, print edition as ‘Trump Affirms Support for May.’