BERLIN — A new U.S. president’s first official calls to the leaders of Germany and France are supposed to be kumbaya moments — a coming together with two of Washington’s firmest global allies. But President Trump’s upcoming chats with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande promise to be two uncomfortable tete-a-tetes.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed Friday that those tricky first conversations will happen Saturday — with Trump tellingly fitting in calls to Merkel and Hollande on the same day he speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Merkel, Trump will speak with a leader whose core refugee policy he has called “a disaster.” For her part, in thinly veiled comments Friday, Merkel suggested that Trump, in his first days in office, was already in danger of upending the world order.
In Hollande, meanwhile, Trump will speak with a man who last summer not so subtly said that the new U.S. president “makes you want to retch.”
That’s all sticks and stones compared with the serious issues suddenly threatening to put a gulf between Washington and officials in Berlin and Paris, dividing the West at time when British Prime Minister Theresa May — in Washington to see Trump this week — is preparing to yank her country out of the European Union.
In Germany and France, the highest ranks of government have grown deeply worried by Trump’s sniping at NATO and his dismissal of the European Union. Signs of fence-mending with Russia could also signal a new security threat for Europe — especially for Germany, which is already a fierce target of Russian disinformation ahead of September elections in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term.
Merkel’s Germany, in fact, is being increasingly seen as a potential counterpoint to Trump’s United State. Although she is center-right politically, Merkel’s dedication to human rights, free trade, combating climate change and holding sanctions on Russia for its de facto invasion of Ukraine have earned her a reputation as a liberal democratic progressive. As the leader of by far the E.U.’s largest economy, she is also Europe’s decider — and Europe’s decider is worried.
During a joint news conference with Hollande in Berlin on Friday, Merkel did not mention Trump by name. But there was little doubting who she meant as she said: “We are seeing that the global framework is changing dramatically and rapidly. We have to respond to these new challenges, when it comes to defending a free society as well as defending free trade.”
Seeming to push back at comments this month in which Trump said he does not think the E.U. “matters much for the United States,” Merkel also warned that “we need a clear common commitment to the European Union.”
“There are many challenges, from climate change to trade deals and the other issues I mentioned, for which we need Europe,” she said.
Her close associates in Germany have been blunter.
Departing foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier — who is set to take over the job of Germany’s ceremonial president — said in an exit interview published by the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday that he had never seen anything quite as politically disturbing as Trump.
“Despite long years in politics, I was shocked by this American election campaign,” he said. “This it not about little things but about fundamental questions of how we see ourselves, such as the attitude towards torture.”
He added, “That a French and a Chinese president publicly need to inform their new American colleague about the advantages of an open world and free world trade, I could not have envisioned until a couple of days ago by any stretch of the imagination.”
In France, Hollande has been blunter still.
When Trump calls Hollande, he will be speaking to a head of state whose days in office are numbered. The unpopular Hollande announced in December that he will not be seeking reelection in presidential voting this spring.
Nevertheless, the conversation is likely to focus on a range of issues including Europe’s refugee crisis and Islamist terrorism — a sensitive topic in France, where 230 have died in attacks in the past two years.
Trump has repeatedly lambasted French security services for what he has described as their failure to prevent the attacks. After the summer, when 86 were killed in a truck attack in Nice and a village priest was murdered in the middle of conducting Mass, Trump declared that “France is no longer France” — a remark that outraged French leaders.
Consequently, during the throes of the U.S. election campaign, Hollande did not mince any words, urging Americans to reject Trump outright.
“His excesses make you want to retch,” Hollande said after the Republican National Convention, when Trump criticized the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim U.S. soldier killed on duty in Iraq in 2004.
Then, in the final hours before polls closed on Nov. 8, Hollande suggested, not so subtly, that Americans should waste no time in voting for Hillary Clinton.
“I have confidence in the American people to know which is the choice that best reflects their values, their principles, to freedom, to this relationship to Europe,” he said.
On Friday — one day before he was due to speak with the new U.S. president — Hollande said that Trump posed “challenges” for the future of Europe.
Speaking at the news conference in Berlin alongside Merkel, Hollande said: “Let’s speak very frankly. There are challenges. There are the challenges the U.S. administration poses to our trade rules as well as to our ability to resolve conflicts around the world.”
McAuley reported from Paris. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.