Trump hails ties with UK despite Brexit criticism
US President Donald Trump said Friday ties between Britain and the US were "very very strong" after launching an extraordinary attack on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy during a visit already marked by protests.
Sitting alongside his host at the start of talks at May's country retreat of Chequers, Trump told reporters: "The relationship is very, very strong. We really have a very good relationship."
Their meeting came just hours after an interview was published in which Trump said May's plans for close future ties with the European Union would "probably kill" her hopes for a US trade deal.
He suggested that this was not what voters wanted, and further added that he had advised May to take another path and saying Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign minister over the plan, would make "a great prime minister".
Trump's comments saw the value of the pound plunge on currency markets.
On Friday, Trump said that at a gala dinner at Blenheim Palace the night before he and May spoke for almost 90 minutes and had "probably never developed a better relationship".
The prime minister smiled and said there was "a lot to discuss", including "the special relationship, which is great, between the UK and US".
She said they would discuss "the real opportunities" on a US trade deal, as well as foreign, defence and security issues "where we work really closely together".
- 'A controversialist' -
Trump's interview with The Sun came before he flew into Britain on Thursday from Brussels, where he subjected the North Atlantic Treaty organisation (Nato) allies to a roasting over their defence spending.
Junior foreign minister Alan Duncan sought to brush off the remarks, telling the BBC: "Donald Trump is a controversialist, that's his style... I don't think we see it as rude."
In London, demonstrators began gathering for a mass protest against Trump, beginning with the flying of a huge balloon of the president depicted as a crying baby outside the Houses of Parliament.
"I think it's hilarious. It's an accurate representation of his politics which are so immature. He never enters into adult discussion," said Paul Fonseca, 23.
Trump, a long-time supporter of Brexit, told The Sun he had advised May on her strategy to leave the EU but was ignored.
"She wanted to go a different route. I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way. And that is fine," he said.
"She should negotiate the best way she knows how. But it is too bad what is going on."
The government published its blueprint on Thursday calling for close trade ties with the EU after it leaves the bloc next March.
"The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on," in the 2016 EU referendum, Trump said.
- 'Extraordinarily rude' -
May insists the plan will protect trade with the EU while giving Britain the freedom to strike its own deals with other countries like the US.
But Trump said: "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."
His comments reflect many of the concerns of eurosceptics in May's Conservative party, risking fuelling a revolt sparked by the resignations of Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis over the plan this week.
British politicians rounded on Trump for his intervention, with one minister asking "Where are your manners, Mr President?" and the opposition Labour party calling him "extraordinarily rude".
Anthony Gardner, who was ambassador to the EU to former president Barack Obama, said Trump's attack was "totally unacceptable" and "unprecedented" in the middle of a high-profile visit.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later sought to limit the damage, saying Trump was "thankful for the wonderful welcome" he received in Britain.
"The president likes and respects Prime Minister May very much," she said.
- Tea with the queen -
Trump and May watched a display of military special forces on Friday before their formal talks which were due to include Russia, ahead of a summit in Finland on Monday between Trump and President Vladimir Putin.
Putin's government is accused by May's of unleashing a deadly nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury. Moscow denies the charge, but May is pressing Trump to raise the issue with Putin.
Trump will later Friday take tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, before spending the weekend in Scotland on a private visit that will likely take in 18 holes at one of the property magnate's golf courses, where more protesters await him.
He will not attend any high-profile events in London, where the big demonstrations are planned, but would have heard protesters outside the ambassador's residence where he and his wife stayed on Thursday.
Melania Trump visited veterans on Friday at London's Royal Hospital Chelsea where she also met local school children, accompanied by May's husband Philip.