Day After Frosty Merkel Meeting, Trump Slams Germany on NATO

  • Merkel said best not to talk about one another on social media
  • Trump at press conference said many nations ‘unfair’ to U.S.

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

President Donald Trump, less than 24 hours after an awkward first meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel that highlighted their divides on policy and personality, said Germany must pay the U.S. more for providing defense.

“Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” Trump told his almost 27 million Twitter followers early Saturday.

The president wrote that he’d had a “GREAT meeting with” Merkel, brushing off what he termed “fake” reports suggesting otherwise.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen rebuffed Trump’s comments, saying the spending goal for NATO members includes other activities beyond the defense alliance.

“There is no debit account in NATO,” she said in an email Sunday. “We all want fair burden-sharing and that requires a modern concept of security.”

Trump’s messages came after Merkel, at a joint White House press conference, appeared to tweak the president about his criticisms of her and others on social media and elsewhere, including an interview in January calling Germany’s open-border refugee policy a “catastrophic mistake.”

“In the period leading up to this visit, I’ve always said it’s much, much better to talk to one another and not about one another, and I think our conversation proved this,” the German leader said through a translator.

Trump on Friday said he had “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 defense.” He said “many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States.”

‘Free Riders’

Trump isn’t the first U.S. leader to complain that most NATO nations, including Germany, weren’t meeting the alliance’s goal that members spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Germany spends about 1.2 percent on defense now.

President Barack Obama in 2016 said in an interview with The Atlantic about his foreign policy doctrine that “free riders aggravate me.” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, said a few weeks ago said that meeting the 2 percent goal is “unrealistic,” although that’s a much lower percentage than the U.S. spends on defense.

Friday’s visit by Merkel, postponed from earlier in the week by a snowstorm, was a day of tense cordiality and sometimes awkward body language. Trump was unresponsive when Merkel leaned in for a handshake in the Oval Office at the request of photographers.

There were few public attempts at the jocularity leaders often use to leaven such encounters, except for a barbed reference Trump made that they had “in common, perhaps” the experience of surveillance by U.S. intelligence.

Policy Vision

The visit was a test of Trump’s foreign policy vision as he welcomed a leader who not only represents Europe’s biggest economy, but has emerged as the most visible advocate of the post-World War II international order. The new U.S. president, a political novice before the 2016 campaign, had his first face-to-face talks with a veteran German leader whom he frequently maligned on the campaign trail, and whose free-trade, open-border politics stand in marked contrast to Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.

“He’s been president less than two months; she has been chancellor more than 10 years,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “She has all this experience. She’s the most important leader in Europe. Some would say she’s the most important leader in the world right now.”

‘We Want Fairness’

The two clashed on trade on Friday. “The negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States,” Trump said. “But hopefully we can even it out. We don’t want victory; we want fairness.”

Merkel subtly corrected the U.S. president. “When we talk about trade talks, the European Union negotiates for all of the member states in the European Union,” she said. “In this spirit, I would be very happy if the European Union and the U.S. can take up talks again.”

Trump bristled at a German reporter’s question about his unsubstantiated accusations that Obama had placed him under surveillance before making the reference to a disclosure, made during the Obama administration, that the U.S. was intercepting Merkel’s mobile phone communications. Turning to Merkel, he joked, “At least we both have something in common, perhaps.” Merkel didn’t smile.

Merkel was looking to Trump -- who has said he wants to reset his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- to ease concerns within Europe that the U.S. could abandon efforts to pressure Moscow into changing course. Merkel has struck a hard line over incursions into Ukraine and the Kremlin’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.

Spending Targets

Trump suggested before he took office that the U.S. might not come to the defense of allies who didn’t meet the 2 percent spending goal, and said the coalition doesn’t always best serve American interests. But U.S. officials have publicly praised the alliance since Trump took office, and Merkel is among European leaders who have outlined steps to boost defense spending to the target level.

Trump repeated his criticism of countries in the alliance that don’t meet the goal during the press conference.

Those differences also are evident on trade, with Germans leading European opposition to a border-adjustment tax plan supported by U.S. House Republican leaders that would make imports to the U.S. more expensive.

Trump administration officials have called the U.S.’s $68-billion trade deficit with Germany an economic injustice and claimed Germany is gaming foreign-exchange markets.

Protectionist Risks

But Merkel argues that protectionist trade policies would hurt the overall economies of both countries, and highlights German companies like Volkswagen AG that have opened factories in the U.S.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with his German counterpart in Berlin on March 16 to discuss some of those issues, in what he said were “extremely productive” talks.

Haass said the nature of the two leaders’ relationship is complicated by the different political roles they play.

“Trump is a disrupter and she is a preserver,” he said. “She wants to maintain the EU, she wants to maintain NATO, she’s wary of Putin. And Trump in every one of these is different: He supports Brexit and is questioning traditional support for NATO and potentially open to a very different relationship with Russia. On the other hand, when expectations are low sometimes that can set the stage for improvement.”

— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa, Steven T. Dennis, and Arne Delfs

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