BERLIN — He has tried to close the door on Muslim refugees. She opened it. He calls himself a tough negotiator. She’s an even-tempered consensus builder. He wants to put America first. She is first and foremost a globalist.
President Trump is set to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week at the White House, marking the first face-to-face encounter between the new U.S. commander in chief and the woman known as “Europe’s decider.” When they meet, the two leaders with little in common will find themselves belatedly moving to forge a relationship that could determine the future of transatlantic ties.
After the exit of President Barack Obama from the world stage, some have hailed Merkel as the new standard-bearer of liberal democracy. But she comes to Washington poised instead to fall back on her most signature trait: pragmatism. Merkel might have been one of Trump’s punching bags on the campaign trail, but she is willing to set that aside.
“Talking with each other instead of talking about each other will be my motto for the visit, which I am very much looking forward to,” she said Monday in Munich.
Whether Trump accepts that gift is anybody’s guess, and Merkel’s visit will undoubtedly spotlight the serious concerns in Berlin about his unconventional presidency. They include fears of a looming trade war and of undermining the European Union, as well as worries of roughshod decision-making in the Middle East that could provoke another refugee crisis.
The trip had been scheduled for Tuesday, but the White House said Monday that it was postponed until Friday because of the weather in Washington. Underscoring how communication between the two sides may yet need a bit of work, a German official close to Merkel said that a firm new date had not been officially confirmed and that Merkel would meet Trump “soon.”
That Merkel and Trump are off to a rocky start is no secret. Trump took swipes at Merkel during the election campaign, decrying her refugee policy as “a sad, sad shame.” For her part, Merkel — who was considered Obama’s closest ally in Europe — responded with a congratulatory message after Trump’s victory that seemed to school him on the importance of democratic values.
Now, weeks after Trump’s meetings with the leaders of other nations, including Japan and Britain, Merkel arrives in Washington with perhaps more to lose than to gain. Locked in a tougher-than-expected bid for reelection this year, she must somehow demonstrate that she is willing to stand up for European values and positions, while also making nice with a trash-talking businessman-turned-president who is deeply unpopular among Germans.
“Merkel wants to demonstrate to the political world in Germany and Europe that she can handle Trump,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Merkel knows that it is part of Trump’s strategy to try to intimidate negotiation partners. . . . Therefore, the chancellor needs to convey a certain coolness to show that this won’t cut it with her.”
Merkel is set to talk to Trump alone for about 30 minutes when she arrives at the White House on Friday. Other officials will then join in, with a roundtable planned between Merkel, Trump and top U.S. and German corporate executives. They include the chief executives of Siemens, BMW and the automotive supplier Schaeffler. After a news conference, there will be further talks focused on economic issues.
With Trump having played down transatlantic relations, voicing skepticism about the E.U. and criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Merkel is expected to reiterate the importance of NATO against the backdrop of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Asked whether Merkel would address Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, one German official said the chancellor would not interfere in U.S. domestic politics. But he noted that Merkel, as a former citizen of East Germany, had “her own experiences” with walls and clearly advocated a barrier- and border-free Europe.
Yet the focus of the meeting will be an issue with which Trump is more familiar — business.
The Germans have grown highly sensitive to the Trump administration’s jabs about Germany’s export surplus, as well as suggestions that an artificially weak euro is unfairly aiding them. Trump has fired off broadsides at German companies, telling the Bild tabloid, “I would tell BMW if they think they’re gonna build a plant in Mexico and sell cars into the U.S. without a 35 percent tax, it’s not gonna happen.”
The German delegation will enter the talks armed with numbers to convince Trump that economic relations between Germany and the United States are mutually beneficial. Overall German investment in the United States tops 271 billion euros ($289 billion), which officials say is 10 times as large as U.S. investment in Germany. The delegation will tell Trump that the number of direct jobs created by German companies in the United States hovers around 810,000.
So a newly aggressive stance with Germany on trade, the team will argue, would hurt the United States, as well.
“Many jobs in Germany depend on exports, so we do have a lot to lose with protectionism,” said a German official who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity to be candid. “But we’re not the only ones.”