Trump stands by wiretap claims in tense meeting with Merkel

US president calls Nato agreement ‘very unfair’ and takes veiled swipe at migrant policy

US president Donald Trump and Angela Merkel set out starkly different views on trade, immigration and Nato in a tense first meeting between the US president and German chancellor in Washington on Friday.

While both sides described the visit as productive, they were visibly uneasy during an at-times awkward afternoon press conference.

Mr Trump described the Nato agreement as unfair to the US and criticised trade agreements between his country and Germany, which he said overwhelmingly favoured Berlin.

"Right now I would say the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States, " Mr Trump said, saying he wanted to "even it out" between the two countries. He added that the Nato agreement was also "very unfair" to the US.


Mr Trump took a veiled swipe at Germany’s refugee policies, something he has repeatedly criticised. “Immigration is a privilege not a right and the safety of our citizens must always come first,” he said.

Dr Merkel side-stepped a question about differences with the US president by saying they had tried to “find solutions and compromises” which were “fair”.

But she took a jab at Mr Trump’s campaign attacks on her. “It’s always better to talk to one another, than about one another,” she said.

In the event’s most awkward moment, Dr Merkel recoiled and pursed her lips when her US counterpart joked that he had something “in common” with the German chancellor in that they had both been under surveillance by the Obama administration. It was revealed as part of the Edward Snowden leaks that the National Security Agency had monitored Dr Merkel’s phone calls. Mr Trump has alleged that the Obama administration had bugged Trump Tower during the election campaign, an unsubstantiated claim he refused to retract at Friday’s press conference.

Nato contributions

In response to Mr Trump’s criticisms that US allies were not paying their fair share to Nato, Ms Merkel pledged to work towards increasing the amount the country contributed from 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product to the alliance’s target of 2 per cent.

In the wake of Trump officials criticising the EU, Dr Merkel defended the bloc and the European Commission’s role in handling trade agreements for member states, including Germany. She said that she spoke for “European unity”.

The summit of the world’s most powerful man and woman brought together contrasting personalities – the cautious pastor’s daughter from the former communist East Germany and the extrovert businessman from Queens.

Before their meeting, the two leaders had publicly sparred over immigration, with Mr Trump repeatedly criticising Germany’s refugee programme, and Dr Merkel critiquing Mr Trump’s travel ban, which targets refugees and individuals from six Muslim-majority countries.

At the press conference, Mr Trump answered “very seldom” to a question about whether he regretted any of his past tweets, some of which had strongly criticised Dr Merkel and Germany.

In 2015, Mr Trump attacked Time magazine for giving its person of the year award to the German chancellor, a "person who is ruining Germany."

In January last year, he tweeted: “Germany is a total mess-big crime. GET SMART!”

Ahead of the visit, both sides had characterised their first meeting as a chance for the two leaders to get to know one another better.

Yet from the outset, their first meeting appeared fraught. When reporters were allowed in to catch a glimpse of the two leaders’ private Oval Office meeting, the leaders initially sat in silence. At one point Dr Merkel appeared to lean towards Mr Trump to ask him if he wanted to shake hands for the cameras. Mr Trump, aside from a slight raise of the eyebrows and a shuffle in his seat, completely ignored Dr Merkel, who looked bemused by the snub.

Roundtable discussion

The joint press conference followed a roundtable discussion on vocational training between top US and German officials, as well as the chief executives of Dow Chemical, IBM and Salesforce.

Among those joining Mr Trump on the US side were the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, and Ms Trump’s husband Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, as well as vice-president Mike Pence.

Dr Merkel had come to Washington seeking common ground whilst determined to defend her commitments to free trade and co-operative international ties.

She had hoped that German pledges to raise military spending to Nato target levels and expand Berlin’s overseas missions would answer Mr Trump’s claims that Germany and other European states do too little in their own defence, leaving the US to do too much.

Berlin is not so confident that it can persuade Mr Trump to pull back from his nationalist economic approach and his attacks on countries running big trade deficits including Germany.

Dr Merkel has argued that the surplus results from various factors including the quality of German products and that trade policy is in any case a matter for the EU and not Berlin alone.

Above all, Dr Merkel remains keen to defend the EU from possible Trump administration attacks at a time when it is under pressure from European populists.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017/Guardian service)