What little praise the president did offer, he reserved for the U.K.’s recently-departed foreign secretary Boris Johnson.“I am not pitting one against the other,” Trump told The Sun newspaper, referring to May and Johnson. The latter stepped down from May’s cabinet Monday, citing disagreements over Brexit. “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
The unsolicited criticism from a longtime ally capped an already chaotic week for May. She not only lost her foreign secretary and Brexit secretary in back-to-back resignations, but also had to contend with this week’s NATO summit in Brussels and an ongoing murder investigation into the nerve-agent poisoning of a British citizen. That Trump’s interview published at roughly the same time she was honoring him with a black-tie gala at Winston Churchill’s birthplace merely exemplified a week defined by damage control.
But if Trump’s latest comments were meant to kick May while she was already down, they have paradoxically achieved the opposite. For one, Trump is deeply unpopular in the United Kingdom—a fact evidenced not just by polls, but by the widespread protests that have raged on throughout his visit in the country (including, as my colleague Rachel Donadio reported, a blimp of Trump’s likeness as a baby floating over Westminister). His efforts to weigh in on British politics in the past—from the country’s handling of terrorism to its National Health Service—have backfired, and there’s little evidence to suggest his latest comments will be received any differently. In fact, they have already prompted lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum to come to the prime minister’s defense. Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative lawmaker, condemned Trump’s comments as “repulsive.” The opposition Labour Party’s foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said it was “extraordinarily rude of Donald Trump to behave like this.”
But beyond rallying support around the prime minister, perhaps the biggest coup for May came when Trump did something he rarely ever does: apologize. Speaking to reporters at the joint press conference Friday, Trump walked back his published criticisms of May, which he downplayed as “fake news” despite his interview being recorded. “When I saw her this morning, I said, ‘I want to apologize, because I said such good things about you,’” he said. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press.’ I thought that was very professional.”
When asked about the possibility of a U.K.-U.S. free-trade agreement, the prime minister was able to confirm that a deal was still in the cards. “The Chequers Agreement reached last week provides the platform for Donald and me to agree [on] an ambitious deal that works for both countries right across our economies,” May said. And perhaps more crucially, she got Trump to say the same. “Whatever you’re going to do is okay with us,” Trump told May in his own remarks, noting that “this is an incredible opportunity for our two countries, and we will seize it fully.”