After the French president’s warm visit, the frosty atmosphere was clear as the US and German leaders discussed Nato and Iran
Donald Trump and Angela Merkel worked hard to present a united front on Friday but could not mask deep differences in substance and style.
Although the two leaders stressed the US and Germany’s close ties, their low-key meeting offered a stark contrast to the lavish state visit of French president Emmanuel Macron – and their body language was distinctly colder.
At a joint press conference at the White House, Trump bemoaned America’s $151bn trade deficit with the European Union, whose exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs expires on Tuesday unless the US grants an extension.
Merkel suggested little progress had been made on the issue. “The president will decide – that’s very clear,” she told reporters. “We had an exchange of views on the current state of affairs and the negotiations. The decision lies with the president.”
Trump said: “We need a reciprocal relationship, which we don’t have. We’re working on it and we want to make it more fair and the chancellor wants to make it more fair.”
We need a reciprocal relationship, which we don’t have. We’re working on it and we want to make it more fair
But he added that he did not blame Merkel, Germany or the EU for the imbalance. “I blame the people that preceded me for allowing this to happen,” he said.
The US president also reiterated his criticism of Nato members that do not spend the mandatory 2% of GDP on defence; Merkel said Germany’s latest budget would take defence spending to 1.3% of GDP. He said: “Nato is wonderful but it helps Europe more than it helps us, and why are we paying a vast majority of the costs?”
On her first visit to Washington since re-election, Merkel had been expected to back up Macron’s case for defending the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump is threatening to scrap. The chancellor acknowledged that the deal is “anything but perfect – it will not solve all the problems with Iran”, but she described it as a building block. She said Trump must decide whether the US would withdraw.
He offered no fresh clues to his thinking but said: “They will not be doing nuclear weapons. That I can tell you. They’re not going to be doing nuclear weapons. You can bank on it.”
Merkel looked on bemused as Trump gave rambling answers about his plans for a new embassy in Jerusalem and the withdrawal of Ronny Jackson as nominee for veterans affairs (VA) secretary. Trump praised Jackson and said: “I explained Washington can be a very mean place; you don’t know about that, chancellor. A nasty place.”
Listening via a translation device, Merkel frowned and grimaced. Moments later, Trump said about accountability reforms in the VA: “When someone treats our veterans badly, we can fire them so fast – almost as fast as they fire people in Germany.” Merkel raised her eyebrows and forced a smile.
When Merkel last visited, Trump was criticised for not shaking her hand in the Oval Office. This time, he greeted Merkel outside the West Wing with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. He insisted: “We have a really great relationship, and we actually have had a great relationship right from the beginning, but some people didn’t understand that.”