LONDON — Not even Donald Trump can defuse a diplomatic hand grenade after it has gone off.
At an extraordinary press conference at the U.K. prime minister’s country retreat Friday, President Trump sought to limit the damage he had done to his relationship with Theresa May over three days of increasingly hostile rhetoric which came close to blowing up his first official visit to the U.K. before it had even begun.
Clutching May’s hand on the way to the podium set up for the two leaders at Chequers, Trump repeatedly tried to tone down his previous comments, via a newspaper interview, that May was killing the prospect of a U.S. trade deal by failing to see through a total divorce from the EU.
Instead, Trump set about praising the prime minister as an “extraordinary woman” with whom he had “the most special” relationship.
If Angela Merkel was watching, she could be forgiven for cringing in sympathy, having felt the brunt of Trump’s up-and-down diplomacy days earlier. After initially accusing her of being “totally controlled” by Russia, Trump declared he had a great relationship with the German leader when sitting next to her hours later.
The plan was to not even try to control Trump’s outbursts — accepting they would come — but to try and ride them out
If there was a pattern to Trump’s diplomacy on his whirlwind tour of Europe this week, it was this: First the detonation, then the clean up — whatever the chaos and confusion left behind.
For May, it was brutal 48 hours.
In three successive outbursts aimed squarely at the U.K. prime minister in the days leading up to his arrival in the U.K on Thursday, Trump had found the bruise in British politics causing May so much pain — Brexit — and set about taking a sledgehammer to it.
May’s closest aides had braced themselves for Trump’s unique brand of “f–k you” diplomacy, senior U.K. government officials said ahead of the visit.
The plan was to not even try to control Trump’s outbursts — accepting they would come — but instead to ride them out, according to a senior official familiar with May’s thinking ahead of the trip.
Donald Trump meets Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle in England | Chris Jackson/Getty Images
And yet when the president’s most full-frontal attack landed Thursday night — splashed on the front page of the most popular newspaper in Britain, the Sun, just as the prime minister was sat with the president at a gala dinner in his honor at Blenheim Palace — the laser-guided ferocity of his assault on her biggest weakness appeared to catch even Downing Street cold.
Trump told the Sun the Brexit divorce deal being pursued by May “will probably kill the [trade] deal” he hopes to sign with the U.K. after Britain has left the EU. He also revealed he had warned May to be much tougher with the EU.
“I would have done it much differently,” he said. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me. She wanted to go a different route.”
For May, struggling to keep the right wing of her party on board as she seeks a compromise Brexit acceptable to the U.K. parliament and EU leaders, the attack could not have been more damaging.
Brexit attack part 1
It was not Trump’s only assault. He had first laid out his discontent with the U.K. prime minister during a press conference at the end of the NATO summit. Responding to prodding from British reporters, the U.S. president said he didn’t know if May’s Brexit proposal was what the British people voted for.
It came after Trump praised former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — a potential Brexiteer rival for the Conservative party leadership — as he prepared to set off for Europe from the U.S. Tuesday, declaring Johnson had what it takes “to be a great prime minister.”
Thousands of anti-Trump protesters gathered in Trafalgar square | Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images
It was a message he repeated in the Sun and again at Chequers.
For May, Trump’s criticism only served to reinforce accusations she was being too weak in her dealings with the EU from the right of her party — and too weak in her dealings with the U.S. president from those on her left.
The closest she came to criticizing the president was when she addressed his attacks head on. “I heard the turn of phrase the president used earlier,” she said. “But let me be clear about this: We will be leaving the European Union.”
She added: “The Chequers agreement reached last week provides the platform for Donald and me to agree an ambitious deal that works for both countries right across our economies.”
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared Trump was “absolutely right” while hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party threatening to drag May from power rowed in behind the president.
Farage said the intervention had come as “a bombshell to the establishment in London.”
Trump could not resist adding that his advice on how to handle the Brexit negotiations was probably “too brutal” for May.
He added: “Number one, Trump believes in Brexit. He believes in a world of democratic nation states cooperating with each other, not globalist structures like the European Union. Number two, he feels the U.S. administration has been very badly let down.”
Ian Paisley Jnr, one of the Democratic Unionist Party MPs who May’s government relies upon to stay in power, also defended Trump’s intervention.
Paisley, who was invited to the White House in March and who has known the U.S. president since 2006, said Trump’s intervention was “a bit of a wake-up call.”
“For him leave really does mean leave, Brexit really does mean Brexit. He doesn’t do nuance, I think that would be the kindest thing to say. Does he seek to cause offense by it? No, he is just in your face.”
Shake, rattle and troll
For Trump’s critics — and some of his supporters — it is part of a pattern of behaviour intended to shake up the rules of the game wherever he goes.
On the “Good Morning Britain” TV show early Friday, former White House aide Steve Bannon said Trump was standing up against the “corporate interests” in the City of London who were out to stop Brexit.
Former UKIP leader — and Trump uber-fan — Nigel Farage | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel claimed Trump’s treatment of Merkel was a sign that he wanted “regime change” in Berlin. Former U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband picked up on the theme, warning that the “turmoil” Trump had identified in the U.K. had its origins “in the world view (and myths) of the alt right” in the U.S. and warned the U.K. government it needed to “wake up to the new world disorder” embodied by the president.
Leslie Vinjamuri, from Chatham House, agreed that Trump’s policy was to “sow division wherever he goes” and praised May for being “remarkably unflappable” in response.
At Chequers, Trump attempted to row back on his earlier comments, insisting that “whatever you do is okay with me” before adding: “Just make sure we can trade together — that’s all that matters.”
However, he could not resist adding that his advice on how to handle the Brexit negotiations was probably “too brutal” for May.
At this, the prime minister looked on stony faced.
Former U.K. ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said the strategy being pursued by Number 10 was “firm in private, don’t escalate in public.”
May stuck to that strategy, whatever the cost.
Exposing the scale of the challenge highlighted by Trump, May went straight from hosting the U.S. president to welcoming a group of Conservative Eeuroskeptics to brief them on her Brexit plan in an attempt to reduce the number of rebels prepared to vote against any deal she strikes with Brussels.