There were discernible slights and insults for German Chancellor Angela Merkel at her first meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House. For Donald Trump, it was just another day, full of outrageous behavior and controversy.
The grave consequences of rudeness at this rarefied diplomatic level should not be underestimated. But it was nuances of what was said and what wasn’t said at the White House that will have the more far reaching results.
Angela Merkel was portrayed by the world media as a put upon woman, a victim of the slights of a misogynist. But she is a mature and substantial politician in her own right. She will know that she came away from this summit with nothing. She is the kind of consensus, liberal politician that Trump holds in the greatest contempt. And she has the most to fear.
It was the more nuanced, less obvious slights that will rankle Merkel. She will get over the brutish behavior of Trump, for she is a woman who has put up with George Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nikolas Sarkozy in the past.
It is her failure to win any concessions that will wound her more deeply.
But first, to the ghastly fun – Trump’s obnoxious behavior.
The German media, clutching at straws, said that the pair had clasped hands twice. But it was the outrageous snub of the German Chancellor’s offer to shake hands at the particular time and location – the official photo call in the Oval Office – that caught the world’s attention. The footage will be replayed for many years as a reminder of how badly Trump can behave.
The photographers called for the two to shake hands and Merkel can be heard saying: “Do you want to have a handshake?”
Trump ignored her, and enhanced footage later shows that he clearly heard her.
Later on, during the official press conference, he made a joke that left Merkel stunned and stony-faced.
Trump was asked by a German reporter about his shrill accusations of wiretapping on his Trump Tower home by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama. He replied: “As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps.”
He was referring to Der Speigel’s revelations in 2013 that Obama had sanctioned a National Security Agency (NSA) operation to bug Merkel’s phone.
She was not amused.
Without realizing it, Trump revealed how little the chancellor and he have in common. Even in a joke, if all he can find “in common” is that Obama tapped them, it is a stark sign.
Her humorless reaction illustrated the unbridgeable chasm between the two. There was zero chemistry. Chemistry between world leaders (or lack of it) is of pivotal importance; personal conduct and personal relationship should not be downplayed too much. In world affairs, personal relationships play a vital role.
During World War II, General Charles de Gaulle’s haughty and rude behavior towards almost every Allied leader he came in contact with did France no favors in the post-war world. Winston Churchill and particularly Franklin Roosevelt could not abide him. France was not to take the position it believed entitled to in post-war transatlantic geopolitics.
Much later, US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got on famously. This won the British important support from the US in the Falklands War and on many defense issues. Thatcher could be as obnoxious as Trump sometimes. Her rudeness to European leaders has tainted Britain’s relationship with Europe to this day.
Yes, personal conduct is important. But the visible slights can be overblown in this media age. The substantive words that are spoken during and after these meetings are most important.
The German media slammed Trump for his behavior.
But they seemed to think the meeting went well otherwise. I would profoundly disagree. I was in Washington DC that day and the feeling around the White House and the Capitol among US government sources was that there will be big problems down the line.
Merkel had arrived in Washington three days later than expected due to a huge snowstorm.
She had two main aims for her meeting with Trump: to secure support for a more powerful European Union, and to calm Trump-inspired pressures on the NATO alliance.
She failed catastrophically on both fronts. Put simply, there was absolutely no mention of the EU and its expanding frontiers. There was no hint that he has softened his stance as a Eurosceptic. There was nothing. It was unclear whether it had been touched on behind closed doors. But there was no allusion to it in their 30-minute press conference.
This was noted in Washington.
As politicians go, Merkel is a relatively straight shooter, but she can twist the facts when it suits her.
Look at this exchange in the joint White House press conference:
“I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel our strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense,” Trump said at the press conference.
Merkel said disingenuously that she was “gratified to know” how “important” Trump feels NATO is. He didn’t quite say that.
The US is the Big Fish in NATO, and as long as it’s in NATO, it’s obvious that it will support it. The pertinent part of Trump’s statement is: “the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense.”
On this, Trump has been consistent. He believes the US is being ripped off by its NATO colleagues. Any attempt to imply they will increase their contributions to the required two percent of GDP by 2024 falls on Donald’s deaf ears. He wants the money now.
In January, just before becoming president, Trump gave a simultaneous interview with The Times of London and German newspaper Bild, where he said many NATO member states were not paying their fair share for US protection.
The rules say you must spend more than two percent of GDP on defense to be a member of NATO.
The US spends a gargantuan $650 billion on defense annually – that’s 3.61 percent.
Here’s the full list of contributions. France, Turkey, Germany, Italy, and Canada – all economic powerhouses – are paying less than the required two percent. But it is Germany that rankles Donald. Not only is it one of the few countries to challenge the US economically, it won’t pay up.
We’re not quite sure whether Trump will follow through on positive signals to Russia. But if he does follow through to a full rapprochement, then NATO’s viability will be further threatened. And this is very bad news for Germany.
Just so we were sure where he stood afterwards, he told us through the medium that really matters for Donald – Twitter.
He believes NATO is not doing its job on defending its nations from terrorism, though the United State’s maverick interventionism has hardly helped.
There was another stressing of the chasm between the two on another critical area – immigration. Trump said during the press conference: “Immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first.”
The two have been hugely critical of each other's stance in the past, with Chancellor Merkel slamming Trump's travel ban.
In January, he told The Times and Bild: “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals.”
Merkel is no shrinking violet herself, and she can insult, though subtly. She said at one point in the press conference on Friday: “It's much better to talk to one another and not about one another.” This was a dig at his Twitter rants and nasty things he has said in interviews.
Merkel and Trump differ on so much, it is hard to see them ever reconcile fully. But international diplomacy is all about compromise. When Trump became president, she blundered. Having criticized him for his attitudes to women, she decided to mark his election by patronizing him.
She wrote a letter that says Germany and America “are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Trump is no idiot, and he is surrounded by smart people. These words were plainly a patronizing insult.
She went on: “It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
Trump let her know in no uncertain terms that he will not allow her wish to be granted.