Trump May meeting: The Wacky Races of news conferences

Jon Sopel
North America editor
@bbcjonsopelon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images

To say it was a sub-optimal start to a news conference would be an understatement.

In fact a huge British understatement. In fact, frankly ridiculous.

Overnight, Donald Trump had given an interview to the Sun newspaper in which, given the febrile state of UK politics, contained three utterly deadly quotes.

The first was that if Prime Minister Theresa May went ahead with her Brexit plan as hammered out at Chequers last week (and which led to the resignations of two cabinet ministers), then it would "kill" a trade deal with the US.

The second zinger from the president ahead of his joint news conference was that May hadn't listened to him over how to negotiate Brexit with the EU. "She didn't listen. No, I told her how to do it," he told the Sun.

And the final killer quote concerned one of those cabinet ministers who walked - Britain's blond bombshell Boris Johnson, who has long coveted the top job.

The US president said he would make a very good prime minister. Ouch! Can you imagine how that made Mrs May wince?

Image source, Getty Images

When Barack Obama came to the UK just before the EU referendum, he faced the sternest criticism over his comments that Britain would go to the back of the queue on any future trade deal if it left the EU.

Mr Obama was doing that to help David Cameron. Mr Trump's intervention seemed designed to undermine the prime minister. That's quite something.

So what would unfold when the two of them emerged onto the parched Buckinghamshire lawn at Chequers to face the press?

Would Mrs May summon up her inner Hugh Grant from the film Love Actually and tell the US leader that there was something terribly wrong with the special relationship?

Or would she, the vicar's daughter, be much more polite and accommodating, and not dare to contradict her occasionally bullying guest?

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
No such "back off, Mr President" rant from the real prime minister

Well in the end she didn't have to make a choice. The US president seemed to have discovered a reverse thrust button inside his suit.

"No trade deal? We'll go along with whatever you decide. We just want to keep on trading. Not listen to my advice? Well maybe she will, and listen - this Brexit thing is a really tough deal.

"Boris? Sure, I think he would make a good prime minister, but I think Theresa is fantastic. Superb. A wonderful woman. I really got to know her last night. I felt sorry for the other people at our table. We just spoke to each other."

It was the sort of thing that leads teenagers to use the word "euwww".

But then he went into rhetorical overdrive, turbo boosters firing, uttering the words that ALL British prime ministers love to hear. Special relationship? It was incredibly special. Specialer than a special thing. More precious than the most valuable jewel. It was one of the great wonders of the world. It was 11 out of 10 special.

OK, I exaggerate a touch. But not by much.

Media caption,
Do Trump and May hold hands every time?

And then came something rarer than hens' teeth. President Trump conceded that he had apologised to the prime minister over that Sun interview. I thought I'd misheard that bit of the news conference.

It was like watching the Wacky Races. The car comes crashing off the road but somehow it splutters on, with the engine dragging along the ground, exhaust pipe belching black fumes, bodywork crumpled.

At this news conference they got the wheels back on track, as Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop smiled sweetly at each other.