Thousands of people have begun protesting in London as visiting US President Donald Trump doubled down on his criticism of Europe’s immigration policies during a meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, but appeared to backtrack on his earlier damning comments over his host’s Brexit plan.
Protesters accusing Trump of creating a culture of racism, misogyny and intolerance on Friday inflated an orange blimp depicting the US president as a diaper-wearing baby outside the British parliament in London.
Dozens of other demonstrations were planned across the UK.
In order to avoid the protests, Trump flew to Chequers in Buckinghamshire by helicopter to meet May, following a visit to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst on Friday morning.
There, the two leaders held a joint press conference during which Trump seemed to backpedal on his criticism of May and her handling of Britain’s departure from the EU, or Brexit, in an interview with The Sun newspaper.
Trump had said that May’s plan would “probably kill” any future trade deal as it would mean the US “would be dealing with the European Union” instead of the UK.
However, at Friday’s press conference Trump that the US would be OK with whatever way Britain’s decides to follow regarding Brexit.
“Once the Brexit process has concluded and perhaps the UK has left the EU, whatever you do, as long as we can trade with each other it is OK with us,” Trump said.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Buckinghamshire, said the comments made by Trump are typical of his style.
“The contradiction about Trump is that people say he speaks his mind, whether you like him or not, he says what he thinks. Yet, what it looks like is that he told newspapers that support a hard-Brexit what they wanted to hear and now he has come here and said to May, who is in a total crisis because of what he told The Sun newspaper, what she wanted to hear,” Lee said.
“Saying, ‘Whatever you do is fine with me’ is so different from saying, ‘There has to be a hard-Brexit because the European Union is ruining trade relations with the United States,'” he added.
In the interview with The Sun, Trump also said that Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary and a potential leadership challenger to May, would make a “great prime minister”, adding “I think he’s got what it takes.”
During the press conference, Trump was also asked to clarify his newspaper interview comments in which he claimed “immigration was changing the fabric of Europe”.
“I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you’re losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago,” Trump said in the interview.
When asked about these comments, Trump doubled down, saying it might hurt Europe even more in the future.
“I think it is changing the culture, I think it’s a very negative thing for Europe. I think it has very much hurt Germany, I think it has very much hurt other parts of Europe,” Trump said.
“I know it might not be very politically correct to say that, but I’ll say it, and I’ll say it loud,” he added.
“I think they better watch themselves because you are changing culture, you’re changing security. It’s a very sad situation, it’s very unfortunate.”
In response to the same question, May said: “The UK has a proud history of welcoming people who are fleeing prosecution to our country. We have a proud history of welcoming people who want to come and contribute to our economy and contribute to our society.”
But, circling back to one of the main reasons of Brexit, May said the UK needs to be able to decide its own border policy.
“What is important is that we have control over our borders, what is important is that we have a set of rules that lets us control who comes to our country,” she said.
In central London, thousands of people started to gather to protest against Trump’s visit.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from the UK capital, said Trump is seen as a “divisive figure” by the protesters.
“These demonstrators gathering here on Parliament Square see him as a bigot, as a racist, as a xenophobe, as a misogynist,” Barker said.
One of the protesters, Dom Elliott, 32, told Al Jazeera he attended the rally for two main reasons.
“One is because I think America is sick at the moment. There is someone [Trump] who is a cheat and a conman and corrupt in power. He is undermining democracy and global stability,” Elliott told Al Jazeera.
“The second reason is that I love America. I want them to heal and I want this to get better. It makes you sad.”
Another protester, Justin Hui, said he just wants to show that Trump is a very unpleasant man.
“The last drop was the treatment of American families. That’s why we put a baby Trump and put it in a cage and said ‘the only child that should be separated and detained is Trump’,” Hui told Al Jazeera.
He added that he is also against Trump’s attitude towards immigrants, women and climate change.
“He is effectively exporting this attitude as well. People are very much emboldened by his visit.”
Lei Jurs, 25, travelled from Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, to London to take part in this “historical moment”.
Jurs said she wanted to condemn Trump for supporting Israel.
“It is really bad to have an American president that supports Israel given how the Israelis are treating Palestinians and taking away their freedom in any plausible manner,” she said.
At the centre of the demonstration is the giant six-metre-high balloon, which was cleared by the London mayor’s office to fly over the centre of the city. Organisers raised 18,000 British pounds (almost $24,000) from crowdfunding.
Trump’s schedule, however, will largely keep him out of central London.
Later on Friday, the president paid a visit to Windsor Castle where he and First Lady Melania Trump had tea with Queen Elizabeth II.
Trump is also expected to spend a private weekend in Scotland with his wife, where he owns two golf resorts.