WASHINGTON — President Trump stood alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May in a press conference Friday and disputed reports that he had criticized her just hours earlier in an interview with an English newspaper. Trump dismissed the article that was published Thursday night by the Sun as “fake news” and suggested the White House had a recording that would prove he said “tremendous things” about May in the interview.
“I said tremendous things, and fortunately we tend to record stories now so we have it for your enjoyment if you’d like it,” Trump said. “We record when we deal with reporters. It’s called fake news, and we solve a lot of problems with the good old recording instrument.”
Though Trump declared that his press shop would release the tape, the White House did not respond to multiple requests from Yahoo News asking for the recording.
The Sun interview contained a series of quotes attributed to Trump that criticized May’s handling of the Brexit referendum. According to the paper, Trump said he gave May advice about how the United Kingdom should exit the European Union, but she went “the opposite way” of his counsel. Trump described the results of this as “very unfortunate” and hinted that May’s plan for Brexit would “kill” hopes of a trade deal with the United States.
“If they do that, I would say that that would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States,” Trump is quoted as saying in the interview.
After Trump first said the White House had a tape of the interview that could be provided to reporters, Yahoo News emailed his press shop to ask for the recording. The White House did not provide the tape and instead sent a statement from press secretary Sarah Sanders saying that Trump deeply appreciates May. The statement cited some of Trump’s more positive comments that were included in the Sun’s interview.
“The President likes and respects Prime Minister May very much. As he said in his interview with The Sun she ‘is a very good person’ and he ‘never said anything bad about her,’” the statement said, adding, “He thought she was great on NATO today and is a really terrific person. He is thankful for the wonderful welcome from the Prime Minister here in the U.K.”
Trump’s comments as reported by the Sun sent shock waves throughout the United Kingdom. May is currently dealing with dissension in her own party about her plan for leaving the European Union. In particular, Trump’s threat that May’s handling of Brexit could dash hopes of a trade agreement with the United States was a bombshell, since Trump’s promise of a major deal was seen as a key benefit of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU.
The Sun interview dominated the two leaders’ press conference on Friday, with multiple reporters questioning whether they have a positive relationship in light of Trump’s remarks. In response to the questions, Trump struck a far different tune than in the Sun interview.
During the press conference, Trump insisted his relationship with May is “the highest level of special.” Trump also said that “whatever” May decides to do with Brexit is “OK with us” as long as the two countries remain able to “trade together.”
The president repeatedly said his comments in the Sun were taken out of context.
“I didn’t criticize the prime minister. I have a lot of respect for the prime minister and, unfortunately, there was a story that was done which was, you know, generally fine, but it didn’t put in what I said about the prime minister,” said Trump.
Yahoo News reached out to the Sun’s political editor, Thomas Newton Dunn, who conducted the interview, to see if he would provide a recording of it and to ask how he felt about being labeled “fake news.” Dunn did not respond to the request. The paper did publish audio excerpts of some of Trump’s comments criticizing May and predicting that her Brexit plan would affect trade in the article on the interview.
Trump’s critique of the Sun as “fake news” was notable since the newspaper is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The company’s news outlets are known for a conservative bent and generally have a cozy relationship with the Trump White House. At the press conference with May on Friday, Trump refused to take a question from CNN and instead went to a reporter from Murdoch’s Fox News cable channel.
“CNN’s fake news … I don’t take questions from CNN. … Let’s go to a real network,” Trump said before turning to Fox News.
Voters in the United Kingdom narrowly voted for the so-called Brexit in June 2016. Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned against Brexit, resigned soon afterward, which paved the way for May to lead the government and plot the departure from the EU.
May is currently facing the prospect of a challenge to her leadership after agreeing to a deal that some see as a “soft Brexit” last week. The plan would see the United Kingdom maintain a close relationship to the European Union, including a free trade area based on a “common rule book.” In the Sun interview, Trump was quoted suggesting this would make it impossible for the United Kingdom to make a new trade pact with the United States.
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K., so it will probably kill the deal,” Trump is quoted as saying.
After the Brexit plan was announced last week, May’s government was hit with a spate of high profile resignations from her Cabinet. Both Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and May’s minister in charge of Brexit negotiations, David Davis, stepped down as a result of the agreement.
In the Sun interview, Trump praised Johnson and said he would “make a great prime minister,” a remark that was widely seen as undermining May and providing fuel to her detractors. The Sun noted that Trump’s comments would “pour nitroglycerine on the already raging … revolt against” May by pro-Brexit members of her party.
At the press conference on Friday, Trump insisted that his assessment of Johnson was “unrelated” to his view of May. Trump suggested this could be proved by a recording of the interview, which he said would be made available by Sanders.
“We have the tape. You can ask Sarah. Get if from Sarah. we taped the entire interview,” said Trump.
Following Trump’s promise that Sanders would release the tape, Yahoo News again emailed the press secretary and her deputies asking for the recording. Sanders did not respond.
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