BERLIN — Allegedly heated comments by President Trump about a key U.S. ally — Germany — generated a fresh swirl of confusion Friday around an administration that has already had more than its fill.
During a meeting Thursday with European Union officials in Brussels, Trump allegedly said, “The Germans are bad, very bad,” according to Germany’s Spiegel Online, which cited unnamed sources in the room. He continued, the outlet said, by saying: “See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S.? Terrible. We will stop this.”
On Friday, the report spread rapidly through the German press and social media, igniting a backlash, including one response by a German industry group saying Trump’s protectionist stance would make him “a loser.”
But what did Trump actually say?
European officials — and Trump’s administration — offered contradictory accounts.
Part of the backlash stemmed, perhaps, from a poor translation: In its German-language editions, Spiegel used the word “böse” — which can mean “bad” but is closer to the English word “evil.” In another report, the German outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a similar quote from Trump but translated the word he used as “schlecht” — a milder German word for “bad.”
In a later tweet from Spiegel Online’s main account, it clarified that Trump had indeed used the English word “bad” and not “evil.”
Yet even that remained in dispute, with the administration offering no clarity — again highlighting the communication problems that continue to plague the White House.
One of the key figures in the room during the meeting, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said the Der Spiegel report was off.
“He didn't say the Germans are behaving badly,” Juncker told journalists in Sicily ahead of the start of a Group of Seven summit involving the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Canada and Japan. “He said we have a problem, as others do, with the German surplus. So he was not aggressive at all. Bad doesn't mean evil.”
Soon afterward, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to leap on Juncker’s comments to debunk the story. Responding to a tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman about the Der Spiegel article, Spicer wrote: “Except it’s not true: Juncker says Trump was not aggressive on German trade surplus.”
And yet, when asked on the sidelines in Sicily, chief White House economic adviser Gary Cohn seemed to confirm that the president had said something about “bad” German trade practices.
“He said they’re very bad on trade but he doesn't have a problem with Germany,” Cohn said. “He said his dad is from Germany. He said, ‘I don't have a problem with Germany. I have a problem with German trade.’ ”
Another official with direct knowledge of the Thursday meeting told The Washington Post on Friday that Trump had never used the word “bad.”
“He did say yesterday that there’s a massive deficit that he doesn’t intend to put up with, but nothing about Germany being bad,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting with top leaders. Cohn was not taking formal notes during the conversation, the official said.
During an appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump ignored a question from a reporter who asked whether he had called the Germans “bad.”
In Germany, however, the incident seemed to highlight suggestions of a growing rift between Washington and Berlin after the frosty March meeting between the president and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who Trump repeatedly jabbed at on the campaign trail last year. In a January interview with the European press, Trump called out German corporate titans including BMW, warning that they may face fat tariffs on U.S. imports should they keep building cars in Mexico.
Asked about Trump’s alleged comments, Germany’s deputy government spokesman, Georg Streiter, said in Berlin on Friday that “a trade surplus is neither bad nor evil; it’s the result of the interplay between supply and demand on world markets.”
Martin Schulz, the candidate from the center left who is challenging Merkel in this year’s election, appeared to more generally condemn Trump’s aggressive behavior toward Germany as Europe as a whole Europe at the Brussels gathering. In the meeting, Trump also demanded that allies pay more for their defense and held back on offering an unconditional pledge to honor NATO’s treaty commitment that an attack on a single alliance nation is an attack on all.
“Such humiliating treatment is to be rebuffed,” Schulz said in Berlin, according to German press reports. “One does not need to accept something like that.”
Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee of the German parliament who hails from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told Spiegel Online: “U.S. President Trump isn’t capable to lead the Western alliance. In any case, he isn't interested in it at the moment.”
The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quipped: “It’s worth having a look at other Trump quotes: Who else does the president find “bad.” Suddenly the Germans find themselves in the company of North Korea . . . and Mexican drug gangs.”
Some wore the alleged slight as a badge of honor: “#The Germans are very, very bad’ #Trump. Haven’t been praised like that in a while,” tweeted Bernd Ulrich, a journalist with Die Zeit.
André Schwarz, spokesman for the Federation of German Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA), called Trump’s stance on Germany’s trade surplus wrongheaded.
“The right way is to improve one’s own competitiveness instead of trying to gain advantages by means of some kind of import tariffs” on “good” German products, he said.
He added, “We shouldn’t be too concerned with rhetoric, but it's important to clarity that [his position] will make him a loser.”
Some in Germany, however, gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, instead blaming the German press for stoking the fires of animosity with a bad translation.
“It’s not easy, but sometimes evil German journalists should quote #Trump properly,” tweeted German user Andreas Wolf. “For example when he says BAD instead of EVIL! #germansarebad.”
Philip Rucker in Sicily, Michael Birnbaum in London and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.