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In changing of tone, Trump heaps praise on May as ‘tough’ and ‘capable’

LONDON — President Trump on Friday tried to repair the diplomatic damage he caused with an interview blasting his host, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, by praising her leadership and calling their two countries’ relationship “the highest level of special,” even as he continued to publicly question her decisions.

During a news conference at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence, Trump was by turns defiant, fawning, and dismissive about the interview. He first tried to deny he had criticized the prime minister and blamed the embarrassing episode on the news media.

When that rang hollow, he then tried to compensate by lavishing May with compliments and, in the end, claimed that the slights were so insignificant that she had waved off his attempts at an apology.

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The contortions followed a report in The Sun late Thursday that quoted him criticizing May’s approach to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the process known as Brexit.

He said her business-friendly plan would leave Britain closely tied to the bloc, ultimately killing the prospect of a trade deal between the United States and Britain. He then proceeded to praise perhaps her most prominent rival, Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary last week in protest over her Brexit plan.

“I didn’t criticize the prime minister; I have a lot of respect for the prime minister,” Trump told reporters during an outdoor news conference after he and May had met for talks. He blamed “fake news,” falsely claiming the report — in a right-wing, pro-Brexit, Murdoch-owned tabloid — had omitted any praise of May.

“I think she’s doing a terrific job, by the way,” Trump added, calling her “tough” and “capable.”

He also used the news conference to lay out an ambitious agenda for his Monday meeting in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, saying he had hopes for progress on nuclear arms control issues, Syria, and Ukraine.

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He also said he would ask Putin about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but he said he did not expect his Russian counterpart to acknowledge his role.

After his meeting with May, Trump and his wife, Melania, went to Windsor Castle to have tea with Queen Elizabeth II.

The three shook hands and stood side-by-side as a military band played a royal salute and the National Anthem. The Trumps towered over the monarch, who stands roughly 5-foot-3. The president is about 6-foot-2.

The president and queen then reviewed a line of Coldstream Guards wearing traditional bearskin hats before entering the castle. The Trumps and the queen were scheduled to spend about 30 minutes getting acquainted but the visit extended past 45 minutes.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in London and a “Trump Baby” balloon was launched Friday, as activists mounted protests at every stage of Trump’s working visit to Britain.

The most anticipated installment of Britain’s “Stop Trump” protests — the giant orange balloon of Trump depicted as a pouting baby in a diaper and holding a smartphone — took flight from Parliament Square.

As if they were waiting for a rocket launch, activists, tourists, and bystanders gathered around the 19-foot balloon and counted down before it was released into the air.

“This is a victory,” said Leo Murray, an activist and the creator of the balloon. “People love it, he hates it, and it’s driven him out of London.”

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Throngs of demonstrators gathered at several sites, including Trafalgar Square, to protest Trump’s policies.

Oxford Street, famous for its shops, was transformed into a carnival of slogans against Trump. “Dump Trump,” “Child Snatcher,” and “Trump Special Relationship: Say No,” some of the placards read. “Hey, ho, Donald Trump has got to go” thousands of people chanted to the beat of drums.

Even as he tried Friday to pivot away from his criticism of May, Trump did confirm perhaps the most damaging element of the report in The Sun, which quoted him saying that the prime minister had rejected his advice about how to approach Brexit and was therefore headed down a damaging path.

He said he still believes May should follow his advice.

“I did give her a suggestion — I wouldn’t say advice — and I think she found it maybe too brutal,” Trump said. “As far as negotiating the deal, I probably would have done what my suggestion was to the prime minister, but she can always do that.’’

Trump said the first thing he had done upon his arrival at Chequers on Friday was to offer a mea culpa to May but that she had assured him none was necessary, joining him in pinning the drama on the news media.

May denied that she had felt undermined by the article, pivoting repeatedly to her insistence that the Brexit plan she is pursuing will pave the way for an “ambitious” bilateral trade deal.

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May had been hosting a black-tie dinner Thursday night for Trump at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, when news of his interview with The Sun began to break, leaving British officials and politicians in a state of shock and disbelief.

The interview trampled on protocol by intervening directly in the most sensitive domestic issue confronting May, and at a time when there is speculation about a challenge to her leadership after she announced her Brexit plan.

Trump also said that he stood by his praise of Johnson. “He’s been saying very nice things about me as president,” he said. “He thinks I’m doing a great job.’’