Donald Trump has praised Britain as “smart” for opting out of a European Union that he believes is dominated by Germany and on the brink of collapse, in an interview with a former Tory leadership contender, Michael Gove.
The president-elect promised to draw up a trade deal with the UK “quickly” after Brexit and said he could understand why voters chose to leave in last year’s referendum. “You look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the UK was so smart in getting out,” he told Gove.
Gove, the first senior Conservative to meet Trump, spent an hour chatting to the president-elect in what he called his “glitzy, golden man cave” in Trump Tower, New York, for an interview with the Times.
Trump stressed his fondness for the UK and said other countries could follow its lead and leave the EU, something Gove predicted during the referendum campaign. “I believe others will leave. I do think keeping it together is not gonna be as easy as a lot of people think,” said Trump.
Asked whether he would press ahead with a trade deal with the UK that would come into force after Brexit, Trump told the former justice secretary “absolutely, very quickly. I’m a big fan of the UK. We’re gonna work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly. Good for both sides.”
He said he was keen to meet the prime minister after his inauguration, which will take place on Friday. “I will be meeting with [Theresa May]. In fact if you want you can see the letter, wherever the letter is, she just sent it. She’s requesting a meeting and we’ll have a meeting right after I get into the White House and … we’re gonna get something done very quickly.”
But Trump also underlined that he is likely to be a tough negotiating partner, threatening to slap a 35% import tax on BMW cars if the German company sticks to a decision to build a plant in Mexico. Such protectionism would risk retaliatory measures from Germany, which was the target of many of the most combative comments in the interview.
Trump blamed the decision of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to welcome refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, for jeopardising the stability of Europe. “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals, you know taking all of the people from wherever they come from. And nobody even knows where they come from.
“People, countries, want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity. But I do believe this: if they hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, so many, with all the problems that it … entails, I think that you wouldn’t have a Brexit.”
In a separate but simultaneous interview with the German paper Bild, Trump said he might contemplate tightening restrictions on Europeans wanting to travel to the US. “That could happen, but we’ll see. I mean, we’re talking here about parts of Europe, parts of the world and parts of Europe, where we have problems, where they come in and cause problems. I don’t want to have these problems.”
The president-elect also made a series of provocative comments about foreign policy, reiterating that he could do a deal with Russia that would result in sanctions being lifted. And he believed the Nato military alliance is obsolete and needs reform. “They have sanctions on Russia – let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia. For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”
He said he would appoint Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, as a Middle East peace envoy.
Trump’s blunt remarks underlined how radically different his approach will be from that of his predecessors, who have traditionally sought to build a close relationship with the EU – and how difficult he will be to work with for his counterparts from other countries.
Gove, who is usually regarded as being on the liberal wing of the Conservative party – and is known for not suffering fools gladly – praised Trump’s business acumen, saying he “campaigned in 140-character Twitter storms and intends to govern by spreadsheet”. Gove added: “Intelligence comes in many forms.”
By securing the interview, which took place alongside a journalist from German newspaper Bild, Gove stole a march on the prime minister, who has not yet confirmed a date to meet her US counterpart. The timing of the interview was awkward for May, taking place as her advisers draw up the final draft of a speech on Brexit that she is due to give on Tuesday. The prime minister will reportedly warn her EU partners that she is ready to walk out of the single market and the customs union.
Philip Hammond, the chancellor, set the tone in an interview on Sunday with a German paper, Welt am Sonntag, saying that Britain would respond aggressively if it were shut out of the EU’s markets. Asked if Britain saw its future business model as being a tax haven, Hammond replied: “Most of us who had voted remain would like the UK to remain a recognisably European-style economy with European-style taxation systems, European-style regulation systems etc. I personally hope we will be able to remain in the mainstream of European economic and social thinking. But if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.”
In the early days after his election, Trump appeared keener to pose for photos with the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage than to build a relationship with Downing Street. He even suggested that Farage would be a good candidate for US ambassador.
His enthusiasm for drawing up a new trade agreement with the UK is in stark contrast to the warnings of Barack Obama during last year’s referendum campaign that Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for trade talks if it voted to leave the EU.
Since being sacked by May, Gove has written a regular column for the Times. He worked at the newspaper before being elected as the MP for Surrey Heath and is known to be close to its owner, Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News network was often favourable to the Trump campaign.
Trump insisted that he was determined to keep tweeting when he enters the White House. “The tweeting: I thought I’d do less of it. But I’m covered so dishonestly by the press – so dishonestly – that I can put out Twitter – and it’s not 140, it’s now 280 – I can go bing bing bing … and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out – this morning on television, Fox – ‘Donald Trump, we have breaking news’.”
The interview took place as it emerged that Donald Trump has been told by the departing director of the CIA to adopt a more careful approach to US national security, with a warning that the president-elect should not be carelessly “talking and tweeting” without understanding the threat posed by Russia.
In an outspoken television interview, John Brennan added that the president-elect’s recent criticism of the intelligence agencies was offensive, after Trump had accused them of allowing a controversial dossier about alleged contacts between his campaign and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to appear in press reports.
Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, the outgoing CIA director said: “Now that he’s going to have an opportunity to do something for our national security as opposed to talking and tweeting, he’s going to have tremendous responsibility to make sure that US and national security interests are protected.”