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Trump and Merkel can't hide fundamental differences in first visit / Trump jokes about wiretapping at Angela Merkel press conference – video
Donald Trump appeared to deny the German chancellor Angela Merkel a handshake during a photo opportunity with the press at the White House on Friday. Trump and Merkel met earlier for a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office where they were expected to talk about strengthening Nato, fighting the Islamic State group and resolving Ukraine’s conflict
Trump and Merkel can't hide fundamental differences in first visit
German leader defended stance on refugees and globalisation while US president again used the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ in first face-to-face meeting
Friday 17 March 2017 19.56 GMT Last modified on Saturday 18 March 2017 00.05 GMT
Donald Trump and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, struck a conciliatory tone at their first face-to-face meeting on Friday, but there was little disguising their fundamental differences in policy and style.
Merkel said she was “gratified” that the US president pledged support for Nato and the Minsk peace process in Ukraine. Trump insisted that he is a believer in free trade and declared: “I am not an isolationist.”
But it was hard to escape the testy relationship between the bookish woman now seen as a crucial bulwark of the postwar liberal order and the brash businessman who rose to power on a populist tide.
Merkel, who addressed the media through an interpreter, said: “It’s always better to talk to one another than about one another.” But at times the odd couple appeared to talk past each other.
The German chancellor used the opportunity to defend her stance on refugees, globalisation and “win-win” trade deals, while Trump again used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and set out an economic nationalist vision that would put American workers first.
His backing for the Nato alliance, he made clear, came with caveats. “I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for Nato as well as the need for our Nato allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defence,” he said. “Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.”
Merkel had been accompanied to Washington by German business leaders, and trade was a clear point of potential disagreement. Trump has previously warned German car companies he would impose a border tax of 35% on vehicles imported to the US market.
A German journalist challenged Trump over his potential to weaken the EU and his criticism of “fake news” in the media. Trump said sarcastically: “Nice, friendly reporter.”
He went on: “First of all, I don’t believe in an isolationist policy. But I also believe a policy of trade should be a fair policy and the United States has been treated very, very unfairly by many countries over the years, and that’s going to stop. But I’m not an isolationist. I’m a free trader but I’m also a fair trader.”
Trump added: “I don’t know what newspaper you’re reading but I guess that would be another example of, as you say, fake news.”
Angela Merkel had been accompanied to Washington by German business leaders, and trade was a clear point of potential disagreement. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Merkel was careful not to disagree directly but said Germany’s success has been intertwined with European unity and integration. “I believe globalisation ought to be shaped in an open-minded way but also in a fair way. Freedom of movement within the European Union, for example, is a very important element of our economic progress, of peace, has been for many decades.”
She acknowledged that immigration and integration “have to be worked on” and said refugees should be given the opportunity to “shape their lives where they are”. These were issues that she and Trump had an “exchange of views” about, she added.
Trump cut back in to say: “All I want is fairness. Germany’s done very well in its trade deals with the United States and I give them credit for it.”
But looking further afield, he said Nafta has been a “disaster” for the US and promised: “We are going to be a very different country. We’re going to have great values … Our trade deals are going to be good solid deals, not deals that lead to closing plants and tremendous unemployment.”
Referring to Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that Barack Obama had wiretapped his phones and press secretary Sean Spicer’s repeating of an equally evidence-free claim that British intelligence had helped, another German journalist asked Trump if he ever regretted certain tweets. “Very seldom,” he said. “I can get around the media when the media doesn’t tell the truth.”
He said Spicer had only been quoting “a talented lawyer” who had been speaking on Fox News. “We said nothing,” Trump argued. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television.”
Then, in a strained moment, he said: “This past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps.”
It was a reference to the alleged tapping of Merkel’s phone by the US National Security Agency – an incident that was reported to have infuriated Merkel when it came to light in 2013.
There was some laughter in the East Room of the White House but she remained silent.
The German chancellor had thanked Trump for “the warm and gracious hospitality” but there was an awkward moment in the Oval Office before the press conference when the two leaders sat for photographers, who shouted a request for them to shake hands.
Merkel turned to Trump and asked: “Do you want to have a handshake?” The president ignored her and kept looking straight ahead, his hands clasped together. Merkel looked at the photographers with a half-smile, half-grimace.
The piece of pantomime was in stark contrast to the visit of Theresa May in January. As they walked from the Oval Office down a small ramp, Trump spontaneously took the British prime minister’s hand, an image that was splashed across British newspapers the following day.
In the run-up to the trip, German media warned that the chancellor would struggle to find the right tone and body language for the first meeting between the two contrasting politicians.
A straight-talking, critical approach would have proven popular with the German public – especially with a general election looming in September. But Merkel is aware that America remains her country’s most important economic and military ally.
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“A vast majority of the German public isn’t well-inclined towards Trump,” said Süddeutsche Zeitung. “A lot of people of people will watch closely how Merkel conducts herself.”
“Finding the right measure of warmth and distance won’t be easy,” Der Spiegel wrote.
Throughout his campaign, the US president had criticised the German leader’s handling of the refugee crisis, saying her behaviour was “insane” and that she was “ruining Germany”.
Yet in the run-up to their first meeting, Merkel’s advisers had projected optimism, saying they were hopeful that particularly the “close collaboration” with the Obama administration on the Ukraine crisis could be continued under Trump’s stewardship.
By flying to the US with an entourage of top industrial managers in tow, the German chancellor had made clear that the priority of the trip was to convince the US president of the value of free trade – especially with German firms – rather than to lecture him on refugee conventions or the values of a free press.