Tuesday 17 October 2017

'A free and independent Britain is a blessing' - Donald Trump gives Brexit his backing during Theresa May visit

US President jokes about quick demise of special US-UK relationship after tough BBC's question

President Donald Trump shakes hands with British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Donald Trump greets British Prime MinisterTheresa May as she arrives at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump re-arranges on a table before posing for a photograph with British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump stand side by side at the start of a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump walks over to pose for a photo with British Prime Minister Theresa May between a bust of Winston Churchill, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
British Prime Minister Theresa May lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May participates in lay wreathing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May bows her head as she lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May bows her head as she lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, USA, ahead of her meeting with President Donald Trump. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

US President Donald Trump has given his strong backing for Brexit, telling Theresa May that "a free and independent Britain is a blessing for the world".

Mr Trump predicted he would have a "fantastic" relationship with the Prime Minister, as he welcomed her as his first overseas visitor since becoming president and accepted her invitation to come to the UK on a state visit later this year.

In a White House press conference minutes after showing her the bust of Winston Churchill restored to the Oval Office, Mr Trump said the special relationship between the UK and US was "one of the great forces in history for justice and for peace".

And he added, in words that will be warmly appreciated in Downing Street: "We pledge our lasting support to this most special relationship."

The sense that Mrs May had hit it off with the president on their first meeting was reinforced when the pair briefly held hands as they walked from the Oval Office to their first press conference together.

In almost an hour of talks ahead of a working lunch with Mr Trump, Mrs May appeared to have made some progress on key policy issues which have threatened to divide them.

British Prime Minister Theresa May participates in lay wreathing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May participates in lay wreathing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

She pointedly noted that she had secured Mr Trump's "100pc" commitment to Nato, allaying British concerns over his earlier description of the military alliance as "obsolete".

Addressing Mr Trump directly before the TV cameras, Mrs May said: "Today we have reaffirmed our unshakeable commitment to this alliance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May bows her head as she lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May bows her head as she lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

"Mr President, I think you confirmed that you are 100pc behind Nato."

And Mr Trump backed away from suggestions that he was ready to sanction the use of torture on terror suspects - something Mrs May had made clear she could not support.

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The president said that, although he did not "necessarily agree" with his defence secretary's opposition to "enhanced interrogation" methods like torture, he would allow James Mattis to override him.

High on the agenda for the meeting were Britain's hopes for a swift free trade agreement with the US after its withdrawal from the EU.

British Prime Minister Theresa May lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
British Prime Minister Theresa May lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, U.S., January 27 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Mrs May said they were both "ambitious" for a deal and wanted to "take forward immediate high-level talks, lay the groundwork for a UK/US trade agreement and identify the practical steps we can take now in order to enable companies in both countries to trade and do business with one another more easily."

Mr Trump left no doubt about his enthusiasm for the process.

"I think Brexit is going to be a wonderful thing for your country," he said.

"When it irons out you are going to have your own identity and you are going to have the people that you want in your country and you are going to be able to make free trade deals without having somebody watching you and what you are doing.

"I think it will end up being a fantastic thing for the United Kingdom. I think in the end it will be a tremendous asset, not a tremendous liability."

In his first press conference since his inauguration last week, Mr Trump seemed taken aback when confronted by a tough series of questions on torture, Russia, travel restrictions for Muslims and abortion from BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

Donald Trump joked about the quick demise of the special relationship between the UK and the US, after a grilling from the BBC's political editor.

The president's first response to Laura Kuenssberg's stern questioning was to say: "There goes that relationship," prompting laughter from those gathered at the White House press conference.

She put it to Mr Trump: "Mr President, you've said before that torture works, you've praised Russia, you've said you want to ban some Muslims from coming to America, you've suggested there should be punishment for abortion.

"For many people in Britain those sound like alarming beliefs. What do you say to our viewers at home who are worried about some of your views and worried about you becoming the leader of the free world?"

Pointing to Ms Kuenssberg and turning to Mrs May, Mr Trump said: "This was your choice of a question?"

Leaning in to the microphone with a smile, he added: "There goes that relationship."

Mrs May said: "I have been listening to the president and the president has been listening to me. That's the point of having a conversation and a dialogue."

She added: "There will be times when we disagree and issues on which we disagree. The point of the special relationship is that we are able to have that open and frank discussion so we are able to make that clear when it happens.

"But I am clear also that there are many issues on which the UK and the US stand alongside one another, many issues on which we agree."

She said an "even stronger special relationship" would be in the interests of the wider world.

Her meeting at the White House comes after she addressed congressmen from the president's Republican party in Philadelphia on Thursday.

She lent her weight to Mr Trump's call for Nato members to match the US and UK in meeting promises to spend 2% of GDP on defence.

And she offered backing for some of the president's other foreign policy priorities, condemning Iran's "malign influence" in the Middle East, promising to "stand up" for Israel's security and vowing not to repeat "failed" interventions like the Blair-Bush invasion of Iraq.

But she also had words of caution for Mr Trump over his approach to Russia's Vladimir Putin, suggesting his watchword should be "engage but beware".

Her speech at the Republican Congressmen's Retreat was the first time a foreign head of government had addressed the annual gathering.

In a sign of her determination to deepen links with the Republican establishment as well as the team around Mr Trump, she held private talks with senior congressmen including House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Aides said the meeting with Mr Ryan focused on trade and he told Mrs May that Republicans in both houses were very keen to work with the UK on a deal beneficial for both sides.

Following their press conference in the East Room of the White House, the two premiers will continue their talks over a working lunch in the State Dining Room.

Before their talks, Mrs May and Mr Trump posed for photographs at the bust of Sir Winston Churchill, which the president restored to the Oval Office after it was removed by Barack Obama.

Standing alongside Mrs May, Mr Trump pointed to the bust and said: "This is the original. It's a great honour to have Winston Churchill back."

A smiling Mrs May responded: "Thank you, we were very pleased that you accepted it back."

At one point Mr Trump had a large lamp moved to give the cameras a better view.

Calls

U.S. President Donald Trump will hold telephone calls with the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France on Saturday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in a tweet on Friday.

The Kremlin earlier said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump would speak. Separately, a source in Berlin said Chancellor Angela Merkel would talk with Trump, although Merkel's spokeswoman declined to comment. French President Francois Hollande and Merkel held a joint news conference earlier on Friday.

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