Trump, Merkel cordial, but no apparent movement on Iran
WASHINGTON — President Trump welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House on Friday for a visit of less than three hours that apparently did little to mend US-European differences on issues such as trade and the Iran nuclear agreement.
Instead, they stressed the ties between the longtime allies and their shared goal of a nuclear-free North Korea.
Trump greeted Merkel outside the West Wing with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek, a traditional welcome but far short of the bountiful display of personal warmth that was seen earlier in the week when he played host to French President Emmanuel Macron for a three-day state visit.
In brief remarks alongside Merkel in the Oval Office, Trump called her an ''extraordinary woman,'' congratulated her on her recent reelection, and disputed any idea that their rapport was frosty.
''We have a really great relationship. We actually have had a great relationship from the beginning,'' Trump said.
Though her visit was short on pomp, Merkel's message was similar to Macron's — that America and Europe need to bury the hatchet on key issues, including global trade, climate, and international security.
In a joint press conference Friday afternoon, it was apparent that despite the back-to-back visits, Trump's divisions with Europe are still substantial.
Trump is widely expected to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear accord next month, despite pleas from Macron earlier this week and Merkel Friday.
Merkel used her meeting with Trump to try to paper over the differences, calling the Obama-era agreement a ''first step'' toward curtailing and containing Iran's regional ambitions and suggesting openness to a side agreement.
Trump has said he was open to new negotiations with Iran, but has not said whether he would heed European calls for the U.S. to stay in the deal, which aims to restrict Iran's nuclear efforts, while those talks are underway. His decision is expected by May 12.
On trade, Merkel said there was little progress on seeking permanent exemptions for the EU from Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs. ''The decision lies with the president,'' she said.
Trump implicitly scolded Germany for not meeting its defense spending obligations to NATO, saying, it is ''essential that our NATO allies increase their financial contribution,'' to the pact.
Merkel said Germany's latest budget will take defense spending to 1.3 percent of GDP. She acknowledged that's far short of the 2 percent goal but said Germany is still aiming for that over time.
Merkel made a point of flattering Trump on one issue, declaring that the US pressure campaign against North Korea deserved most of the credit for the summit between the leaders of North and South Korea.
Trump praised Germany's role in the effort but agreed with a reporter's question that he would be ''the closer'' in the deal. ''I think I have a responsibility'' to oversee denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, he said.
While Merkel kept her answers brief, Trump expounded at length on subjects ranging the strength of the US economy under his leadership to the failings of his predecessors in the Oval Office.
The chancellor could not maintain her poker face during a number of Trump's comments at their news conference, her expression at times rotating between looks of amusement and bewilderment as the president parried with the press corps.
In the hours before Merkel's arrival at the White House, Trump himself took note of their limited schedule, which included a 30-minute Oval Office meeting, followed by a working lunch and joint news conference.
While Macron and Trump went to great lengths to display their affection through hearty handshakes, hugs — and, at times, air kisses — the president has not displayed the same chemistry with Merkel.
In their first White House meeting last spring, Trump seemed to ignore photographers' prompts to give Merkel the traditional photo-op handshake. And the chancellor looked on unhappily when Trump upbraided NATO nations last summer for not spending enough on defense as he stood in NATO'S gleaming new Brussels headquarters.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior counselor to Trump, said that the president's relationships with Merkel and Macron don't have to be compared.
''France and Germany are great allies. I think every leader is different, every relationship is different,'' Conway said.
While Macron has been positioning himself as Europe's ''Trump whisperer'' and conduit to an American president who seems intent on upending US relationships with allies, Merkel maintains her strength as the head of the largest economy in Europe.
And if this visit produces a similar lack of bonhomie, that might just be fine with Merkel, who has little to gain at home by being overly friendly with Trump, according to German political analyst Jan Techau.
''For Merkel, it's quite important domestically not to be seen to be getting too close to Trump,'' said Techau, a senior fellow at think tank The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Anti-American sentiment has been growing again in Germany since Trump's election, with mainstream media regularly portraying the US president as a threat to the world.
Trump has demanded an overhaul by May 12 of the international nuclear deal with Iran — an agreement that Germany, like France, worked hard to secure and believes should remain in place.