Trade Talk Shows Trump, Merkel Have Little Common Ground

  • Trump praises German trade negotiators for beating U.S.
  • Merkel explains that EU, not her government, has trade remit

Trump Says U.S., Germany Have an 'Incredible Opportunity'

Donald Trump’s and Angela Merkel’s rhetoric on global trade showed no sign that the two leaders are anywhere close to finding common ground.

In their first meeting at the White House since Trump’s inauguration as president, Trump reprised his complaints that the U.S. had been treated “very, very unfairly” and poured loaded praise over German trade officials for besting their American counterparts.

“The negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States,” Trump told reporters in the East Room alongside Merkel Friday. “But hopefully we can even it out.”

Merkel, whose visit with her new U.S. counterpart was marked by cool distance in their public appearances, was left to explain that trade negotiations are the province of the European Union, not her government, and that there are no such German interlocutors.

“We’ve transferred competencies over to the European Union,” Merkel said. “That means the European Commission negotiates these free trade agreements.”

Perception Gap

The gap in perception between a president in office for eight weeks and a German chancellor who has governed for almost 12 years may foreshadow the widening chasm across the Atlantic. Merkel had no illusion of the differences between her globally oriented view of geopolitics and the “America First” dictum with which Trump has unsettled traditional U.S. partners.

The two were left to talk, based on the premise that, in Merkel’s words, “it’s much better to speak with each other than past each other.”

Even though Trump didn’t respond to requests from photographers for for a handshake as he and Merkel sat for talks in the Oval Office, the two greeted each other warmly moments before on her arrival. At a business round table, at which the German leader was sat next to Ivanka Trump, the president ignored a shouted question about whether he’d used their meeting to repeat criticisms he made during the presidential campaign of her policy accepting Syrian refugees.

Trump, who as a candidate who called Merkel’s migration stance “insane,” offered little of the effusive praise to which Merkel became accustomed to from former President Barack Obama. For her part, Merkel made clear that the two don’t see eye to eye -- and several times echoed the president’s language of pursuing “fair” treatment.

Trade and Fairness

“Even if there are differences of opinion, it’s worth sitting down together,” Merkel said. The two sides should at least strive to find “compromises that are fair to both.”

Trump’s complaint on trade reflected comments by the head of his National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, who has laid into Germany’s trade surplus, accusing Europe’s biggest economy of exploiting its position within the euro area to gain advantage. He was among those in the audience for the news conference. Merkel and her government have rejected those accusations as absurd.

“I don’t believe in an isolationist policy, but I also believe that a policy of trade should be a fair policy,” Trump said.

The U.S. leader did suggest an affinity in another area. Asked about his unsubstantiated claims that the Obama administration had placed him under surveillance late last year, Trump made reference to the disclosure in 2013 that the National Security Agency had been tapping Merkel’s mobile phone.

“As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said, drawing laughter.

Merkel, who had been taking notes during most of Trump’s remarks, stared ahead, without reacting.

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