Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel have at least one thing in common: Both assumed office within the past seven days. Theoretically, that should help them work on rebooting transatlantic relations, which are in disarray following President Trump's recent rhetorical attacks on the European Union and Germany.
But when Gabriel becomes the first foreign representative to meet with Tillerson in D.C. on Thursday, there might be a little problem: Gabriel is Germany's anti-Trump.
The German foreign minister has not held back his views on Trump in recent months. Those views have ranged from calling the president a “front-runner of a new authoritarian and chauvinist movement” to defining him as “a threat,” among other remarks.
If that is not what you would expect to hear from Germany's top diplomat, it's probably because he was not a diplomat until last Friday. For months, Gabriel — who is also the leader of the Social Democratic Party — had been expected to run against Chancellor Angela Merkel in the general election in September. In a surprise announcement last week, he relinquished the candidacy and paved the way for former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who is more popular in the polls. Instead, Gabriel was named foreign minister.
His recent comments provide an insight into how one of the United States' closest international allies might confront Trump in the years ahead. Germany has the biggest European economy, and its citizens particularly fear that Trump might cancel free trade agreements and threaten large German enterprises operating on U.S. soil.
Shortly after assuming office, Trump complained that Germans were exporting a large number of cars to the United States but not importing a similar amount in return. Gabriel, then the minister of economy, reacted with a mere shrug, saying, “The U.S. needs to build better cars.”
Gabriel's anti-Trump comments are unlikely to create a backlash in Germany. Nearly 90 percent of Germans said in a recent survey that they did not want a politician behaving like the current U.S. president to rule their country.
Germany is unlikely to approach the new U.S. administration in the way Britain has done, for instance. British Prime Minister Theresa May invited Trump for a state visit last week — a decision that has resulted in protests and 1.8 million people so far signing a petition to cancel the visit.
Gabriel, meanwhile, has confronted Trump on other issues apart from the economy. Reacting to the president's inauguration speech, Gabriel described the remarks as “highly nationalistic.”
“The only thing that was missing was calling Parliament a 'talking shop,' " Gabriel said. “He's really serious about it, and I believe we have to wrap ourselves up warmly.”
“We should neither be submissive nor should we have fear,” he added.
Responding to the president's comments on what Trump called Merkel's “utterly catastrophic” refugee policies, Gabriel said on a different occasion that the United States should ask itself why people were fleeing the Middle East in the first place.
“There is a link between America’s flawed interventionist policy, especially the Iraq War, and the refugee crisis,” he said on Jan. 16.
One day later, he tweeted: “Populism, isolation and nationalism are the wrong answers to our problems today.”
Gabriel is not following Trump on Twitter. He does, however, follow Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.