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WORLD | 14-07-2018 07:52

Trump sparks protests, controversy in UK visit

US president strains diplomatic ties with extraordinary interview criticising PM Theresa May’s Brexit plans – before immediately backtracking and apologising. Meanwhile, tens of thousands flood London’s streets for huge protest.

US President Donald Trump attempted a giant diplomatic backflip yesterday, reversing controversial statements on trade, Brexit and his critical assessment of British Prime Minister Theresa May while insisting the US-UK relationship is “the highest level of special.” Just days after lobbing broadsides at his British hosts in an extraordinary interview, Trump sought to smooth things over as tensions rose.

Trump’s pomp-filled twoday visit to the United Kingdom wasovershadowed by massive protests and the explosive interview with tabloid newspaper The Sun, in which he blasted May, blamed London’s mayor for terror attacks against the city and argued that Europe was “losing its culture” because of immigration.

In a frenetic press conference at Chequers, May’s official country retreat, an unrestrained Trump blamed his predecessor for Russian aggression in Crimea, defended his beliefs that immigration has damaged Europe and repeatedly jousted with TV correspondents’ whose coverage he found critical.

The president, who prides himself on not saying he’s sorry, did his own version of backtracking, finding a way to blame his favourite foil – “fake news” – for any perceived friction with May, whom he lavished with praise.

“I didn’t criticise the prime minister. I have a lot of respect for the prime minister,” said Trump.

He blamed the UK newspaper for skipping over his praise of May in a piece that was published Thursday, just as the PM played host to Trump at an opulent welcome dinner.

The president urged reporters to listen to a full recording of the interview, which he said would give the full picture. However, the audio was already posted on The Sun’s website – and it undermined Trump’s contention it would back him up.

BREACH OF PROTOCOL

The press conference was a scene in itself. Trump at times drew laughs from some British reporters, who jeered his criticism of the media and openly laughed at his numerous boasts.

Interviewed in Brussels before his arrival in the UK, Trump had accused May of ruining what her country stands to gain from its Brexit vote to leave the EU. Trump said that May’s “soft” blueprint for the UK’s future dealings with the EU would probably “kill” any future trade deals with Washington.

“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,” Trump declared.

The Republican leader, who has linked his own election to the June 2016 referendum in which a slim majority of British voters supported leaving the EU, argued, “the deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on.”

He also told the tabloid, which campaigned for Brexit, that he’d shared advice with May during Britain’s negotiations with the EU and she ignored it.

The interview was the latest breach of diplomatic protocol by Trump. And it comes at a perilous time for May, whose government is teetering amid contentious negotiations on how the UK will leave the EU.

In it, Trump also praised one of May’s political rivals, ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, saying he would make an “excellent” prime minister. The timing could not be worse – Johnson has just quit the government in protest over May’s Brexit plans.

Answering questions yesterday, Trump furiously backpedalled, saying of May’s Brexit talks: “Whatever you’re going to do is OK with us. Just make sure we can trade together. That’s all that matters.”

May, for her part, praised the strength of the US-UK bond. But in a gentle rebuke, she said: “It is all of our responsibility to ensure that trans-Atlantic unity endures.”

MASSIVE PROTESTS

Trump was greeted by massive protests across Britain, including tens of thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets of London alongside a giant balloon that flew over Parliament depicting him as a mobile-phone-toting angry baby in a diaper. Trump travelled by helicopter to avoid the protests in central London.

“I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London,” he complained to The Sun, which is owned by his media ally, Rupert Murdoch, owner of a media empire that includes the Trump-supporting Fox News network.

The US president acknowledged feeling unwelcome in the city, and blamed that in part on Mayor Sadiq Khan, who gave protesters permission to fly the baby Trump balloon. Trump also blamed recent terrorist attacks there on Khan, who is Muslim. The president claimed Europe is “losing its culture” because of immigration from the Middle East and Africa.

“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a sham,” he said. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way.”

Khan, whose grandparents hailed from Pakistan, responded by questioning why Trump repeatedly has chosen to criticise him.

“Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin. Cities in America all suffered terror attacks,” Khan told British broadcaster Sky News. “And it’s for President Trump to explain why he singled me as the mayor of London out and not the mayors of other cities and leaders of other cities.”

In contrast to the president’s sharp words, Trump was hosted at a number of opulent events, including an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. And his first event in England was an oasis of warm greetings at an evening reception Thursday at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, the larger-than-life British leader cited by the president as a model of leadership.

Trump arrived in Britain on Thursday after rattling a NATO summit with complaints about the military alliance.

During his 28 hours there, Trump disparaged longtime NATO allies, cast doubt on his commitment to the mutual-defense organisation and sent the 29-member pact into a frenzied emergency session.

He declared that the alliance was a “fine-tuned machine” that had acceded to his demands to speed up increases in military spending to relieve pressure on the US budget. But there was little evidence they had bowed to his wishes on that front.

TEA WITH THE QUEEN

After all the diplomatic tumult, President Trump took a break from his sparring with US allies and the press to enjoy one of diplomacy’s oldest traditions: sipping tea with the Queen.

The president and First Lady Melania Trump were delivered by chauffeured Range Rover at early evening Friday to the courtyard of Windsor Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II was awaiting them. There were handshakes all around, and then the threesome stood side-by-side as a military band played the US national anthem.

The Trumps and the queen were scheduled to spend about 30 minutes getting acquainted over tea inside the castle but the visit stretched past 45 minutes.

Elizabeth has now met every US president since Dwight Eisenhower with the exception of Lyndon Johnson, who did not visit England while in office.

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