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British PM rolls out red carpet for Trump on first night of visit

AFP / Tolga AKMEN US President Donald Trump arrived in Britain with his wife Melania Trump

British Prime Minister Theresa May invoked wartime leader Winston Churchill and strong transatlantic ties as she hosted Donald Trump Thursday night -- hours after he began a protest-laden visit by questioning her Brexit strategy.

Welcoming the American president and First Lady Melania Trump to a black-tie dinner with business leaders at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Churchill, May said the two countries' "most special of relationships has a long and proud history".

"Mr President, Sir Winston Churchill once said that 'to have the United States at our side was, to me, the greatest joy,'" she said.

"Now, for the benefit of all our people, let us work together to build a more prosperous future," May added after calling for a free trade agreement with the US after Britain leaves the European Union next March.

Trump arrived at the reception to much pomp and ceremony, with the bands of the Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards playing in his honour.

However, the convention-shredding president had ignored diplomatic niceties ahead of touching down for the four-day visit -- his first to Britain since taking power -- by rebuking his beleaguered host as she struggles over Brexit.

At a press conference in Brussels following a NATO summit there just before flying to London, Trump cast doubt on whether May will deliver on British voters' intentions when they backed leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum.

"The people voted to break it up (Britain's ties with the EU)," Trump said.

"So I would imagine that's what they will do, but maybe they will take a little bit of a different route. I don't know (if) that is what they voted for," he added.

- 'They like me' -

The president is set to largely avoid mass protests planned for his controversial trip, which includes talks with May, tea with Queen Elizabeth II and a private weekend in Scotland.

He landed at Stansted Airport Thursday afternoon and was whisked by helicopter to Winfield House, the American diplomatic residence in London.

At a welcoming garden party, the Beatles track "We can work it out" played in the background.

Trump had earlier shrugged off the organised demonstrations, which on Friday will include a giant baby-shaped balloon bearing Trump's features and have required police to be mobilised from across the country.

"They like me a lot in the UK," he added in Brussels.

But some 77 percent of Britons have an unfavourable view of Trump, according to a poll by YouGov with 1,648 respondents.

Hundreds of placard-waving protesters gathered outside both Winfield House and Blenhein Palace late Thursday, but extensive cordons kept them far from Trump.

"He's fundamentally damaging the culture, the discourse, the rules, the laws," said Calah Singleton, a 28-year-old writer who turned out in London.

Meanwhile Amnesty International unveiled a 15-metre banner on Vauxhall bridge opposite the US Embassy branding him a "Human Rights Nightmare".

AFP / Gillian HANDYSIDE Map of Britain detailing Donald Trump's visit

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who signed off on the so-called "Trump Baby" blimp, defended the decision Thursday, arguing the protests were not anti-American.

"But having a special relationship means that we expect the highest standards from each other, and it also means speaking out when we think the values we hold dear are under threat," he said.

- 'Opportunity' -

Despite a series of diplomatic spats between Britain and Trump, May is hoping for a quick trade deal with the US after it leaves the EU.

"It's an opportunity to reach a free trade agreement that creates jobs and growth here in the UK and right across the United States," May told the guests at Blenheim Palace.

She added it was "also an opportunity to tear down the bureaucratic barriers that frustrate business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic".

But Brexit champion Nigel Farage, a critic of May's Brexit plans -- formally unveiled in a policy paper Thursday -- predicted there would be "confrontation" on the visit.

"The Americans can't believe, quite frankly, what a mess we're making of Brexit," he told the BBC.

May weathered the resignations of her Brexit and foreign ministers earlier this week over the proposals.

Trump arrived in Britain after a fraught NATO summit in Brussels where he piled pressure on allies to double their defence spending.

AFP / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT Donald Trump will have talks with Theresa May during his visit

He is due to leave on Sunday for talks in Helsinki the following day with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government May has accused of unleashing a lethal nerve agent in the city of Salisbury.

Russia has strongly denied the charge.

Trump is due to stay overnight at Winfield House, where demonstrators plan to play recordings of migrant children held in US detention centres.

On Friday, he will hold talks with May expected to focus on Brexit and Russia, at the prime minister's Chequers country residence followed by a press conference.

Trump next heads to Windsor Castle for tea with the queen, as protesters stage a mass demonstration in London.

He then travels north to Scotland where he will spend the weekend privately, joined by son Eric Trump. Trump's late mother hailed from Scotland, and he owns two luxury golf courses there.

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