Donald Trump and Angela Merkel meet one on one, but don’t see eye to eye

Trump and Merkel take part in a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House.
Trump and Merkel take part in a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House.PHOTO: AFP
Trump meeting Merkel in the White House Oval Office.
Trump meeting Merkel in the White House Oval Office.PHOTO: REUTERS
Trump greeting Merkel at the West Wing of the White House.
Trump greeting Merkel at the West Wing of the White House.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Trump welcomes Merkel to the White House.
Trump welcomes Merkel to the White House.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) – President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany made no attempt on Friday (April 28) to hide their disagreements over the future of the Iran nuclear deal and trade relations between the United States and Europe after a day of White House meetings that appeared to have produced no breakthroughs on major disputes.

Trump and Merkel, who have had a chilly relationship from the start, steered away from the kind of awkward confrontations that have characterised past meetings, going out of their way to compliment each other and accentuate areas of agreement.

But Trump pressed his complaint that the trade relationship between the United States and Europe was “unfair,” and Merkel made clear that the president had not made the commitment she was seeking – permanently exempting the European Union from the steel and aluminium tariffs he imposed in March.

“We need a reciprocal relationship, which we don’t have,” Trump said, standing beside Merkel at a news conference in the ornate East Room of the White House.

“The chancellor and I have discussed it today at length, and we’re working on it. And we want to make it more fair and the chancellor wants to make it more fair.”

Merkel, alternating between looking serious and perplexed as Trump spoke, said he had given her no preview of what he might decide regarding the tariffs.

“We had an exchange of views on the current state of affairs of the negotiations, and the respective assessments on where we stand on this,” Merkel said curtly. “And the decision lies with the president.”

She said virtually the same thing about the nuclear deal with Iran, which she described as imperfect but as “one piece of the mosaic” of dealing with Iran that could be built upon by Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

“We will now see what sort of decisions are made by American partners,” Merkel said.

Trump gave no hint of whether he planned to follow through with his threat to rip up the deal in advance of a May 12 deadline, answering a reporter’s question about whether he would resort to military force to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a vague warning.

“They’re not going to be doing nuclear weapons,” Trump said. “You can bank on it.” 

Merkel’s understated arrival in the White House driveway on Friday for a few hours of closed-door meetings was a sharp contrast to the elaborate state visit to which Trump treated President Emmanuel Macron of France this week, complete with a 21-gun salute, lavish formal dinner and opera performance in the White House. 

Like his German counterpart, Macron also pressed Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, but their rapport seemed to almost overshadow their many disputes.

That was not the case with Merkel and Trump, who received each other politely on Friday but appeared to find little common ground.

“There was a little bit of honey to go along with the vinegar this time – more than we’ve seen in their other discussions – but the vinegar was certainly there, too,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a senior fellow and the deputy director of the Europe programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They seemed to have agreed to get along, but without making real progress on the major issues.” 

Trump congratulated Merkel for her recent election victory and praised her leadership in helping pressure North Korea to come to the table for talks on dismantling its nuclear programme, but he also blasted what he called an unfair trade disparity between the United States and Germany – making particular mention of a US$50 billion (S$66.2 billion) trade deficit in automobile parts – and dwelled once more on his frequent complaint that Germany does not contribute enough financially to Nato.

“Other countries should be paying more, and I’m not saying Germany alone,” Trump said. “Nato is wonderful, but it helps Europe more than it helps us, and why are we paying the vast majority of the costs?” 

The president was referring imprecisely to the goal that the alliance has set that each member spend at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on its own defense each year. Germany is one of the countries that does not meet that goal.

Merkel pushed back at times, pointedly referring to the fact that German automobile companies also make cars in the United States that are exported elsewhere, creating US jobs.

“We sometimes may look at issues differently, but generally around on the basis of friendship, on partnership,” Merkel said.

Despite their disagreements, Trump greeted Merkel courteously, tweeting in the hours before they met that he looked forward to her visit, and kissing both of her cheeks when she stepped out of her limousine at the entrance to the West Wing.

“We have a really great relationship,” Trump told reporters moments later in the Oval Office, seated beside Merkel for a few moments in front of news cameras before they were to meet privately.

“We actually have had a great relationship, right from the beginning, but some people didn’t understand that.” 

They shook hands twice, avoiding the awkward tableau that played out last year as Merkel sat in the office during her first White House visit of the Trump era, when she held out her hand and the president did not grip it and the two seemed openly at odds at a tense news conference.

“It was better than last year,” Christoph von Marschall, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said of Friday’s visit. “Merkel is never the person you can have a bromance with, a touchy-touchy relationship, but the body language was friendlier.” 

Von Marschall said Macron’s approach of “trying to be Trump’s best friend in Europe” and Merkel’s of keeping a careful distance may have made for a stark contrast, but did not appear to have yielded different results.

Trump “keeps pressure on his partners by not saying which side he’s leaning,” he said. “There were two different strategies, but the same outcome.” 

German business leaders on Saturday voiced disappointment over the outcome of the talks, saying they feared he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. 

“The threatened tariffs remain a major burden on transatlantic relations,” said Mr Dieter Kempf, president of the BDI industry body.

Mr Volker Treier of the DIHK industry and commerce chambers said: "Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the EU will be exempted from the unfair US tariffs.”