Merkel Scours Trump Archive for Clues on How to Read Him

  • Chancellor aims for early meeting with Trump in Washington
  • German leader to push back on Trump views on EU, NATO, trade

Haywood: Europe's Political Hurdles Hurt 'Good Surprises'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been poring over old interviews and video of Donald Trump, seeking clues on how to influence the incoming U.S. president when they first meet, according to two people familiar with her preparations.

Merkel, the European leader who’s been most in Trump’s sights before his inauguration, was struck by the frenzied supporters at his post-election “Thank You” tour rallies and by an archived interview with Playboy magazine that quoted Trump as saying he’d only run for president if he saw the U.S. “continue to go down the tubes,” said the people, who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.

Merkel is trying to take the new president’s measure while gearing up her own campaign for a fourth term in Germany’s fall election, where she’s already using Trump as a foil. The chancellery in Berlin has reached out to Trump’s transition team to suggest an early meeting, which would give Merkel a chance to get Trump’s ear and counter his dismissive views on the European Union, NATO and free trade, according to another government official.

“The chancellor is in a very good position to focus and positively influence the image of Germany and Europe with the incoming U.S. president,” Juergen Hardt, a senior lawmaker for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview. “Her experience and mastery of the issues will stand her in good stead.”

Merkel Method

Merkel’s methodical, coalition-building approach -- she’s a physicist by training -- contrasts with Trump’s Twitter diplomacy and has helped keep her at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy for 11 years. No date has been set for her first meeting with Trump, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Friday.

Some of Merkel’s red lines are already becoming clear, including any attempt by Trump to undermine the EU at a time when the 27-nation bloc is losing the U.K. and under threat from nationalist parties.

Merkel’s message to the Trump administration will have to be that the EU is “strategic interest for Germany” and U.S. efforts to weaken it would mean “you’re treading on our lawn,” Thomas Bagger, head of policy planning at the German Foreign Ministry, said at an event in Berlin on Thursday. “I think that’s the only message he’ll get and the only message he’ll listen to.”

While Merkel was skipping televised coverage of Trump’s inaugural speech to attend a museum opening near Berlin, she will “study the speech with interest,” Seibert said. He declined to comment on the chancellor’s preparations for meeting Trump, saying only that cooperation with the administration “will start up in the days ahead.”

‘Hate Preacher’

Pressure on Merkel to forge a link increased as outgoing President Barack Obama praised her “strong, courageous and steady leadership” in a phone call on Thursday, his last with a foreign leader before leaving the White House. It’s a prelude to what’s likely to be a much more contentious relationship with Trump, who has called Merkel’s open borders for refugees a “very catastrophic mistake” and cast doubt on the value of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU.

Merkel dispatched her top foreign-policy adviser, Christoph Heusgen, to New York at the end of last year to test the waters with the incoming administration. Heusgen told a conference in Berlin on Wednesday that Germany will “do everything we can” to preserve the stability of the trans-Atlantic relationship, but also stand up for German interests.

If Trump doesn’t host Merkel at the White House first, the two leaders will probably meet at the Group of Seven summit in Italy in May or at a summit of Group of 20 leaders hosted by Merkel in Hamburg in July.

Beyond Merkel’s post-election offer of cooperation with Trump based on shared U.S.-German values of “democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and the dignity of humankind,” the chancellor has kept mum in public on her attitude toward Trump. That contrasts with her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the next German president, who issued frequent and blunt criticism of Trump during the U.S. campaign, once calling him a “hate preacher.”

— With assistance by Brian Parkin

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