WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump has come out unequivocally in favor of Spanish unity, just days before voters in the Catalan region are slated to vote on independence from Madrid.
At a joint news conference Tuesday with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a sweltering White House Rose Garden, Trump said he would bet most Catalonians want unity.
"I'm just for a united Spain," Trump said. "I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to."
Trump's comments appear to go against official U.S. government policy. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month the United States would not take a position on the Catalan vote.
The Catalan government is pushing ahead with preparations for Sunday's vote, even after the government declared the balloting illegal and Spain's Constitutional Court suspended the referendum law.
The Spanish leader, speaking after Trump, cautioned Catalan separatists not to push ahead with their independence plans.
"The decision to unilaterally declare independence is not a decision I would make," Rajoy told reporters. "It's a decision which will have to be made or not by the Catalan government. I think it would be very wrong."
The prime minister said holding a referendum next Sunday would be impossible.
"There isn't an electoral committee, there isn't a team at the Catalan government organizing the referendum, there aren't ballots, there aren't people at the voting stations — so it's just crazy," he said.
Rajoy said under those circumstances, the result would not be valid, and would only be a distraction.
"The only thing it's doing is generating division, tensions, and it's not contributing in any way to the citizens' situation," he said.
Trump said he could not predict whether the referendum would be held, even as he follows developments in the independence-minded province.
"I've been watching that unfold. But it's actually been unfolding for centuries and I think that nobody knows if they're going to have a vote," he said.
"I think the president [Rajoy is considered president of the Spanish government] would say they're not going to have a vote, but I think that the people would be very much opposed to that," Trump told reporters. "I can say only speaking for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united."
Opinion polls suggest that Catalonia's population of more than 7 million is divided on the independence question. Catalan officials have said they would declare independence within days if voters approve the referendum.
At Tuesday's news conference, Rajoy, whose country was victimized by an Islamic State-sponsored attack in August that killed 16 people in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, said he and Trump had spent a considerable amount of their meeting talking about terrorism.
"We've been hit by jihadi terrorist attacks on our soil," he told reporters, noting that the two countries cooperate closely on anti-terrorism strategies. "We still need to do a lot in the area of intelligence, we need to improve coordination mechanisms in the area of cybersecurity or preventing recruitment and financing of terrorists."
Rajoy also expressed support for Trump's tough response to North Korea's provocative nuclear missile tests, despite fears in some quarters that it could lead to war.
"No one wishes war anywhere in the world," Rajoy said. "But it's true that the recent events in North Korea, with implications in the neighboring countries, very important countries, it means that we all have to be forceful.
"Those of us who defend the values of democracy, freedom and human rights have to let North Korea know that it isn't going anywhere in that direction," the Spanish leader said.