BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s one-day visit to Washington on Friday includes meetings at the White House and a news conference alongside President Trump, but it is a businesslike affair that seems more duty than pleasure for both leaders.
Merkel arrives with deadlines looming on two crucial issues. Trump has made May 12 his cutoff for deciding whether to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear accord. Meanwhile, a European exemption from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs expires May 1 — on Tuesday.
Yet there is little sign Merkel can get Trump to back down from decisions he sees as part of his populist promise to help American workers and secure better international deals.
And for Trump, Germany’s pointed refusal to join the allied air assault on Syria this month is the latest on a list of grievances that include what he calls grossly unfair treatment of U.S. automakers.
On Friday morning, Trump tweeted: “Look forward to meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany today. So much to discuss, so little time! It will be good for both of our great countries.”
But in Berlin, there’s resignation that a breakthrough is unlikely.
“I don’t think we should raise the bar of expectations too high,” said Peter Beyer, coordinator of transatlantic relations for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union.
Merkel will not get the kind of flourishes accorded to French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit earlier in the week, and there will be no golf in the Florida sunshine, as when Trump played host to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week.
Trump has one welcome gift for Merkel — confirmation Thursday of a U.S. ambassador to Germany after months of delay.
Richard Grenell was nominated last year for a post considered crucial to U.S. diplomacy. Although Trump blamed the long vacancy on political gamesmanship by Democrats, many in Germany and elsewhere saw it as a sign that Trump had discounted the U.S. relationship with Europe’s most populous country.
Merkel and Trump have scant personal chemistry and talk less frequently than any U.S. and German leaders in recent memory. Until a call in March, the two leaders went an extraordinary five months without direct communication.
President Barack Obama was in touch with Merkel weekly for much of his tenure, and his administration considered her the central figure in European fiscal and political stability.
Grenell’s confirmation vote was rushed this week by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in an attempt to beat the clock on Merkel’s visit.
Grenell shares Trump’s deep skepticism about the Iran deal, calling it “a direct blow to the U.N.’s credibility” and the negotiations that led to it “a colossal and dangerous waste of time.”
Macron emphasized the importance of keeping the deal during his meetings with Trump in Washington this week. The French president was the designated emissary for the European argument that the deal can be buttressed with supplemental agreements. But before leaving town, he predicted that the American president would nonetheless decide to withdraw.
Beyer said Merkel would try to persuade Trump that “there is no Plan B. If the U.S. is out, then this thing is probably dead.”
Trade will also be at the heart of Merkel’s pitch to Trump, with the chancellor pushing for a permanent European exemption from the tariffs of 25 percent for steel and 10 percent for aluminum the president announced last month. She has rebuffed Trump’s suggestion of a bilateral U.S.-German free-trade pact in favor of the European Union negotiation Trump despises.
German newspapers reported Thursday that the government was already preparing for the tariffs to hit starting next week — a development that officials have warned could kick off a damaging trade war.
“For the Germans, trade is the lifeblood of the country,” said J.D. Bindenagel, director of the Center for International Security and Governance at the University of Bonn and a former U.S. diplomat. “The point that Merkel will try to make to Trump is that by putting tariffs on aluminum and steel, you’re hurting your own industries.”
The E.U. has threatened retaliatory tariffs on American products such as bourbon, cranberries, motorcycles and blue jeans.
Trump, in turn, has threatened a tax on German auto imports.
“If you want to build cars in the world, then I wish you all the best. You can build cars for the United States, but for every car that comes to the USA, you will pay 35 percent tax,” he said in a January interview with Bild, a German news outlet.
The 63-year-old Merkel — who recently began her fourth term as German chancellor — is on her third American president.
Unlike Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, Merkel has refused to flatter Trump to win his favor. Germany has been a frequent target of Trump’s digs on Twitter. Merkel has largely ignored his comments, while keeping the president at a distance.
“She’s very cautious. He’s brash. There’s more conflict than there is consensus in that relationship,” Bindenagel said.
Trump’s approval ratings in Germany are abysmal. A recent survey showed that just 11 percent of Germans have confidence in the U.S. president. When Obama left office, the figure was above 80 percent.
Merkel, meanwhile, is relatively popular in the United States and in Germany, with more than half of voters approving of her in both nations.
Even as Merkel presses on Iran and on trade, the Germans are prepared for Trump to push back on German defense spending and the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Trump has derided Germany for falling well short of the NATO target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Germany is stuck at 1.2 percent, with only modest increases planned and no clear strategy for hitting the goal. Given German history, many of the nation’s leaders — as well as its European neighbors — have been reluctant to see the country become a major military force.
The gas pipeline, meanwhile, has become yet another wedge in the U.S.-German relationship. A Russian-led consortium wants to build the pipeline to Germany along the Baltic seafloor by the end of next year.
Trump has been a vocal critic, and congressional leaders argue the pipeline will increase European dependence on Russia for energy. Merkel, while expressing some reservations, does not appear willing to block it.
Trump, Beyer said, “has respect for Merkel.”
Asked whether Merkel respects Trump, Beyer offered only an indirect response: “The office that he occupies is something that everybody should have respect for.”
Gearan reported from Washington. Luisa Beck in Berlin and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Merkel’s visit Friday would be her first to the Trump White House. She met with the president there last year.