A White House summit Friday aimed at easing friction between President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was undermined by the visible lack of warmth between the two leaders and sharp differences on immigration and trade.
Trump used his first meeting with Merkel to affirm his “strong support” for NATO and to declare he is not an “isolationist” on free trade after a campaign in which he questioned U.S. policies on multilateral security and economic alliances in Europe and elsewhere.
But the two remained far apart on immigration in the wake of Trump’s efforts to impose a temporary travel ban on refugees and immigrants from several majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa, a move that contrasts sharply with Merkel’s more liberal policies.
For a second time, federal judges this week suspended the president’s executive order, though his administration has vowed to appeal the rulings.
“Immigration is a privilege, not a right,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Merkel, adding, “the safety of our citizens must always come first.”
Merkel’s decision to welcome large numbers of Syrian refugees stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s insistence that the U.S. refugee program has made the country vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.
Merkel on Friday acknowledged the need to secure borders and work to integrate immigrants into society, but she emphasized that such goals have “to be done while looking at the refugees as well, giving them opportunities to shape their own lives . . . [and] help countries who right now are not able to do so, sometimes because they have civil war.”
Beyond policy, their summit was marked by an Oval Office photo op during which Trump appeared to disregard Merkel’s suggestion that they shake hands and he generally avoided making eye contact with her as news photographers captured the scene.
And Trump put the German leader on the spot during their news conference when he made an awkward joke about them having “something in common” over his unfounded allegations that President Barack Obama had ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to wiretap Trump Tower in New York.
He appeared to be referring to reports in 2013 that the Obama administration authorized eavesdropping on Merkel’s personal cellphone calls, a point of tension between her and Obama.
Merkel, looking uncomfortable, chose not to respond to Trump’s remarks.
“It’s always better to talk to one another than about one another,” Merkel said through an interpreter during her opening remarks.
The disharmony between Trump and Merkel is a sharp contrast to Merkel’s warm relationship with Obama, whose world view was largely aligned with the German chancellor on many issues. Trump was sharply critical of Merkel during the presidential campaign, accusing her of “ruining Germany” — a longtime U.S. ally — over her more liberal policies on free trade and refugees. He has also expressed support for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — an alliance deeply important to Merkel.
Beyond their seemingly divergent worldview, the two leaders could not be more different in terms of personality. Trump is a brash, outspoken businessman and Merkel a staid and reserved trained scientist.
The summit was being closely watched at home and abroad for signs of how the two leaders would engage each other. As much as Trump has questioned the multilateral alliances of the post-World War II international order and Merkel has defended them, German officials insisted that her visit was aimed at finding common ground.
Yet unlike Trump’s White House summits with several other world leaders — such as prime ministers Shinzo Abe of Japan, Theresa May of Britain and Justin Trudeau of Canada — there were few signs Friday that he and Merkel had built much personal rapport.
Hoping to get reassurances from Trump on trade ties, Merkel arrived in Washington with an entourage that included German business executives to emphasize the economic ties between the nations. Trump has opposed multilateral trade deals, and talks on a major U.S.-European pact called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which had been negotiated by the Obama administration, have stalled.
Trump said he is not anti-trade, but wants “fair trade,” and he reiterated his past criticism that U.S. policies have harmed American workers.
Despite his endorsement of NATO, Trump reiterated his campaign-trail criticism that member nations are not paying their “fair share” to support the security alliance.
Trump said some countries owe “vast sums” in dues, which is “very unfair to the United States” — an allegation that appeared to be based on an incomplete understanding of how the alliance is funded.
Trump stated that each nation agreed to contribute 2 percent of its gross domestic product to NATO. In fact, the alliance had long ago set a goal that each member would devote at least 2 percent of GDP to defense in their own budgets.
The members contribute their capabilities to NATO, not monetary assessments. Those who haven’t reached 2 percent, which is the majority of nations, don’t “owe” or have to make up shortfalls of the past.
“These nations must pay what they owe,” Trump said.