The contortions followed a report in The Sun newspaper late Thursday that quoted him criticizing May’s approach to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the process known as Brexit.
When that rang hollow, he then tried to compensate by lavishing May with compliments and, in the end, claimed that the slights were so insignificant that she had waved off his attempts at an apology.
The contortions followed a report in The Sun newspaper late Thursday that quoted him criticizing May’s approach to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the process known as Brexit. He said her business-friendly plan would leave Britain closely tied to the bloc, ultimately killing the prospect of a trade deal between the United States and Britain. He then proceeded to praise perhaps her most prominent rival, Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary last week in protest over her Brexit plan.
“I didn’t criticize the prime minister; I have a lot of respect for the prime minister,” Trump told reporters during an outdoor news conference after he and May had met for talks. He blamed “fake news,” falsely claiming the report — in a right-wing, pro-Brexit, Murdoch-owned tabloid — had omitted any praise of May.
“I think she’s doing a terrific job, by the way,” Trump added, calling her “tough” and “capable.”
He also used the news conference to lay out an ambitious agenda for his Monday meeting in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, saying he had low expectations but high hopes for progress on nuclear arms control issues, Syria and Ukraine. He said he would ask Putin about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but he said he did not expect his Russian counterpart to acknowledge his role.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, you got me,'” Trump said, adding that there would not be a “Perry Mason moment,” a reference to the old TV courtroom drama. “I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
And Trump made it clear that he considered the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference, and whether his campaign worked with Moscow in the effort, an impediment to a warmer relationship that he was eager to forge.
“We do have a political problem where, you know, in the United States we have this stupidity going on — pure stupidity,” Trump said. “Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia, he loves Russia.’ I love the United States, but I love getting along with Russia. And China. And other countries.”
Even as he tried to pivot away from his criticism of May, Trump did confirm perhaps the most damaging element of the report in The Sun, which quoted him saying that the prime minister had rejected his advice about how to approach Brexit and was therefore headed down a damaging path. He said he still believed May should follow his advice.
“I did give her a suggestion — I wouldn’t say advice — and I think she found it maybe too brutal,” Trump said. “As far as negotiating the deal, I probably would have done what my suggestion was to the prime minister, but she can always do that. At some point, she can do what I suggested.”
Trump said that the first thing he had done upon his arrival at Chequers on Friday was to offer a mea culpa to May but that she had assured him none was necessary, joining him in pinning the drama on the news media.
“I said, ‘I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you,'” Trump said of May, adding, “She said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press.’ ”
May, for her part, denied that she had felt undermined by the article, pivoting repeatedly to her insistence that the Brexit plan she is pursuing will, in fact, pave the way for an “ambitious” bilateral trade deal.
May had been hosting a black-tie dinner Thursday night for Trump at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, when news of his interview with The Sun began to break, leaving British officials and politicians in a state of shock and disbelief.
The interview trampled on protocol by intervening directly in the most sensitive domestic issue confronting May, and at a time when there is speculation about a challenge to her leadership after she announced her Brexit plan.
In the interview, Trump argued that if such a plan were accepted by the European Union, something most analysts doubt, Britain would be unlikely to secure a trade deal with the United States — a goal prized by hard-line supporters of Brexit who want a cleaner break with the Continental bloc.
Trump also said that he stood by his praise of Johnson.
“He’s been saying very nice things about me as president,” Trump said. “He thinks I’m doing a great job. I am doing a great job, that I can tell you, just in case you haven’t noticed. Boris Johnson, I think, would be a great prime minister.”
“I also said this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job,” Trump said, turning to May. “A great job, and I mean that.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.