- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Friday, President Donald Trump opted to reopen a painful rift in U.S.-German relations, part of his continued claim to have been wiretapped by his predecessor, just a day after the White House drove another close ally, Britain, ballistic by implying its intelligence service was somehow involved.
Trump’s claims have been thoroughly debunked by President Barack Obama, the intelligence community, and top lawmakers, but nevertheless, he persisted. Asked by a German reporter at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the discredited claims Obama had eavesdropped on him, Trump gestured to Merkel and said, “At least we have something in common.”
That was a reference to the 2013 revelations that the United States spied on her mobile phone, the beginning of a diplomatic row between two longstanding allies that culminated in the expulsion of a CIA agent from Germany and led to hard feelings for years. It was an odd path to take in Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Europe’s most influential politician, who now bears the additional burden of defending the liberal international order Washington built and once buttressed.
But Trump’s off the cuff comment, which gobsmacked the chancellor
"As far as wiretapping by, i guess, this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps" pic.twitter.com/dv9MJwJ0d2
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) March 17, 2017
was in tune with the rest of Trump’s press conference. After meeting with Merkel in the Oval Office for a photo opportunity — and pointedly ignoring her request for a handshake — and hosting a roundtable with U.S. and German business leaders, the president slipped back into his familiar campaign mode. (The economic roundtable focused on Germany’s use of apprentices for vocational training. “That’s a word I like,” the former reality TV host said.)
In between remarks about his crowd size at a recent rally in Tennessee, boasts about the supposed unity of the Republican Party, jibes at “fake news,” and attacks on Obama’s healthcare plan, Trump returned to familiar themes. He reiterated his belief that “bad” trade deals had somehow hollowed out U.S. manufacturing (U.S. manufacturing output is at an all-time high) and warned of the dangers of terrorism.
“Immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first, without question,” he said, defending his administration’s recent effort to ban travel for people from six Muslim countries. (Federal courts have frozen that order, too.)
The irony is that Merkel, unlike Trump, actually faces a general election this year, but she did not campaign. Rather, after explicitly noting that she is in the United States to defend the interests of all Germans, she subtly repudiated many of the factually incorrect claims the president made, all while defending free trade, the trans-Atlantic alliance, European integration, and the importance of immigration — in other words, much of what, until recently, it it was customary for the leader of the free world to defend.
She thanked U.S. support — especially the Marshall plan — for helping Germany recover economically after the war, even as Trump’s budget, proposed Thursday, would gut foreign aid.
Merkel noted that Germany’s success is inseparable from European integration and security; Trump has openly praised Brexit and is reportedly considering appointing Ted Malloch, who likens the EU to the Soviet Union, to be U.S. ambassador to the EU. After Trump spoke of advantages afforded German trade negotiators, Merkel reminded him that EU member states cede trade talks to Brussels. She also noted that free trade pacts increased employment, despite some initial fears at home.
Merkel said she was personally gratified to hear Trump is committed to NATO; this, after Trump said, “Many nations owe vast sums of money. It is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.”
When it comes to refugees, Merkel stressed the reasons they can’t go home, such as civil war, to quietly refute Trump’s opening remarks on the supposed dangers of immigration.
The chilly oval office meeting and the awkward press conference with one of America’s closest allies will do little to reassure those in Washington and Europe who worry about the Trump administration’s commitment to Europe, NATO, and the international order. With questions still swirling about Trump’s ties to and intentions toward Russia, that’s probably not what Merkel — or most of Europe — wanted to hear.
Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images