Trump’s backslapping diplomacy gives way to sterner talks with Merkel

President Donald Trump’s backslapping diplomacy with French President Emmanuel Macron gave way to an altogether more businesslike encounter with another European ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the White House on Friday.

Both sides insisted relations between Germany and the United States remain strong, and Trump offered effusive praise for his counterpart, calling the longest-serving European leader an “extraordinary woman” during a news availability.

But the differences between the two visits were stark, and there was little to indicate Merkel had successfully swayed Trump on an array of issues, such as Iran and trade.

“We need a reciprocal relationship, which we don’t have,” Trump insisted when questioned about US-German ties. “I don’t blame the chancellor, I don’t blame Germany, or the European Union. I blame the people that preceded me for allowing this to happen.”

As Trump railed against Germany’s trade surplus with the United States and what he said was lackluster spending on defense, the chancellor appeared unmoved and insisted relations with the United States were strong.

After concluding a joint news conference, there was no greater clarity on Trump’s intentions for the Iran deal, which he has derided and appears poised to exit.

And he would not commit to extending an exemption on steel and aluminum tariffs, which he applied last month.

“The President will decide, that is very clear,” Merkel said through a translator when asked whether Trump would continue to exempt the European Union from the tariffs.

If Macron represented a friendly, if assertive, voice on matters of deep European concern, Merkel arrived at the White House prepared to act as the stern enforcer on issues such as trade and the Iran nuclear deal, even if expectations of swaying Trump remain low.

When the two leaders appeared before reporters, there was none of the arm-grabbing or dandruff-flicking that colored Trump’s interactions with Macron. They did, however, manage to avoid the awkwardness of their first meeting a year ago.

Speaking to reporters at the start of their talks, Trump insisted the pair’s relationship is chummier than it may appear.

“We actually have had a great relationship right from the beginning, but some people didn’t understand that,” he said in the Oval Office. “But we understand it, and that’s what’s important.”

Indeed, the leaders appeared happy to see each other when Merkel’s limousine arrived at the West Wing. Trump kissed her twice on the cheek, and later opened his remarks by congratulating her on her narrow election victory earlier this year. Later, they shook hands twice in the Oval Office, avoiding a repeat of Merkel’s last visit a year ago, when Trump avoided a handshake.

The warmth aside, the differences between Merkel’s visit and the elaborate display of friendship offered to Macron this week were apparent. Macron was treated to a grand military welcome, hours of talks, two dinners with Trump and his wife and an opera performance. Merkel, meanwhile, just came for lunch.

Some officials in Berlin had hoped Merkel might be treated to a grander welcome but pressed forward with what was on offer. Merkel and Macron coordinated their approaches toward Trump before departing for Washington, according to aides. They are both pushing Trump to back off threats to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and soften his approach on trade. But unlike Macron, who participated with the US in coordinated airstrikes on Syria earlier this month, Merkel doesn’t have a major piece of teamwork to tout.

On Iran, Trump refused to rule out military action should Tehran resume its nuclear program, and did not offer any indication of his intentions for withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

“I don’t talk about whether or not I’d use military force. It’s not appropriate to be talking about. But I can tell you this, they will not be doing nuclear weapons, that I can tell you,” Trump said. “They’re not going to be doing nuclear weapons. You can bank on it.”

Like all leaders in countries where Trump remains deeply unpopular, Merkel faces a balance in how much to embrace Trump and how much to scold him. Over the course of their rocky 15-month relationship, Merkel has largely gravitated toward scolding. Shortly after he entered office, she explained the Geneva Convention to him over the phone after he ordered a ban on US entry from certain Muslim-majority countries. And during summit talks in the spring, she forcefully pressed him to remain in the Paris climate accord.

Trump has chafed at the treatment, and relations between Washington and Berlin have suffered. The two leaders went more than five months without a phone call earlier this year, an extraordinary silence that would have been unthinkable during the years when Merkel was the closest US ally in Europe.

People familiar with Trump’s thinking say Merkel’s well-established relationship with former President Barack Obama colored Trump’s view of her; he was more eager to develop ties to Macron since he represented a “blank slate,” without a preexisting relationship with Trump’s predecessor.

The last time Merkel visited the White House, in March 2017, there were moments of distinct awkwardness. Trump appeared to refuse to shake her hand in the Oval Office, though later officials said they’d shaken hands earlier. And she stood grimly silent when Trump joked they’d both been spied on by Obama, an episode Trump griped about later to aides.

Since then, Merkel’s position as the de-facto leader of Europe has been weakened. She faced an unexpectedly tough re-election battle, with challenges from the right spurred by her decision to allow large flows of refugees into Germany.

Macron has largely stepped into the vacuum, but not without coordinating his steps first with Merkel. The two have developed a joint approach to Trump in the areas where their interests align, including the Iran nuclear deal and trade.

Macron left Washington speculating Trump would withdraw from the Iran accord despite his entreaties, but acknowledged that no firm decision was relayed over the course of his state visit.

Merkel was expected to focus more on trade, which remains the thorniest issue between her and Trump. The President has railed against Germany’s massive trade surplus and has honed in particularly on the number of German autos on American roads. The tariffs on steel and aluminum that he applied last month were meant as a remedy.