Merkel's Low-Key Visit With Trump Focuses On Trade, Foreign Policy

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 5:11 pm

Updated at 5:19 p.m. ET

President Trump expressed optimism for upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying of a potential agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula "I hope I'm able to do [it] for the world."

Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House Friday, Trump said he thinks "some very good things can happen." He refused to say whether he has spoken with Kim but that "we have a very good working relationship," and added that the two sides have narrowed down the list of possible meeting sites to two.

Answering questions the afternoon after a summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in which the two leaders vowed to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, Trump said things "have changed very radically from a few months ago, you know the name-calling and a lot of other things." He said that "I think that something very dramatic could happen."

Speaking through an interpreter at the news conference, Merkel said "the strength" of Trump enforcing sanctions on North Korea "opened new possibilities" for an agreement with Pyongyang.

Merkel noted she and Trump "had an exchange of views," on the thorny subject of trade. The U.S. is set to impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from the European Union beginning May 1.

Merkel said "the decision lies with the president," as to whether to grant the EU an exemption from those tariffs but she noted Germany has been working to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S., but "we still have a long way to go."

The Germans "are worried that a dispute between the European Union and United States on trade and tariffs could spiral ... to include autos, and there the Germans have a lot more to lose than the French," said Peter Rough, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

In fact, Merkel said several German car manufacturers have built plants in the U.S. from which they export cars around the world. She also said that since passing a corporate tax cut, the U.S. "has become a very interesting place to invest" for German companies, and that she could envision bilateral trade talks with the U.S., separate from the EU.

In contrast to his upbeat statements on North Korea, Trump sounded more bellicose when the questioning turned to Iran. Trump is threatening to abandon a multilateral agreement with Iran that has halted its development of a nuclear weapon. Even if the U.S. pulls out of the accord, Trump said the Tehran government "is not going to be doing nuclear weapons, you can bank on it."

Merkel said that while the agreement "is anything from perfect," it was one piece of the mosaic, one building block ... on which we can build up this structure." Merkel said she told the president that the whole of the region is of prime importance to Germany, because Iran and Syria were countries "right on our doorstep."

Merkel's visit did not include much of the fanfare that accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron's trip to Washington, D.C., earlier this week.

While there was no fancy state dinner, Merkel echoed many of the concerns that were raised by Macron about U.S. positions on trade and foreign policy during her Oval Office meeting and working lunch with Trump.

Merkel said Germany was now spending 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense, short of the 2 percent target set by NATO, and less than Trump wants. She noted that the U.S. and Europe were not anxious for Germany to rebuild its military strength after WWII, because of "the incredible injustices" created by the Nazis. She said that the post-war period has long since come to an end and "we as Germans have to learn to assume more responsibility."

Trump again defended Dr. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician as head of the White House medical unit and a Navy rear admiral who Trump had nominated to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson withdrew his nomination Thursday, after allegations that he drank while on duty, created a hostile work environment and had engaged in questionable practices for prescribing painkillers and other controlled substances. Jackson has denied the allegations — allegations which have not been independently verified — and remains in his post at the White House.

Trump said he called Jackson Friday, and told him "You're an American hero." What happened to him was "an absolute disgrace," the president added.

Trump said he hadn't decided on a new nominee to lead the VA but that "many people" wanted the job.

Merkel and Trump do not have the close personal bond that Trump shares with Macron. One reason for the frosty relations is Germany's larger trade deficit with the United States. Trump has made clear he considers such deficits a loss for the United States.

But analysts say Merkel's ability to charm Trump should not be underestimated.

"She's a cool and rational person, and has a wicked sense of humor," said Constanze Stelzenmuller, of the Brookings Institution. "She does have this natural warmth and she does display that in private conversation. For all we know, she might be able to win him over."

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President Trump is hailing the progress made between North and South Korea at their historic summit. And he notes that the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea has changed radically from the days of name-calling between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those comments came at a joint press conference this afternoon at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe was there and joins us now. Hi, Ayesha.


SHAPIRO: What more did President Trump have to say today about North Korea?

RASCOE: Well, President Trump says they've gotten to a point that no one expected and that there's the potential for something dramatic to happen and that would be great for the world. Trump did take ownership over the crafting of a peace deal. And he said he had a responsibility to give it a try. He said - he also said that he's narrowed down the possible sites for a meeting between him and Kim to two locations. There's still no date for that summit, though.

SHAPIRO: Now, as we said, this was a joint press conference with Angela Merkel. And one reason she came here to talk with President Trump was the Iran nuclear deal. Merkel wants the U.S. to stay in the deal. Did she make any progress on that?

RASCOE: It's not really clear. In a nod to some of President Trump's complaints about the deal, she called the agreement a building block. And she said it's certainly not perfect, and more would need to be done regarding Iran. But she did say that it will be up to President Trump whether to stay in the deal. President Trump didn't show his hand on that. He was asked whether - if the U.S. left the deal, would he consider military action against Iran to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons? He said he wouldn't talk about that. But he did say this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They will not be doing nuclear weapons. That I can tell you, OK? They're not going to be doing nuclear weapons. You can bank on it.

SHAPIRO: Another point of friction between President Trump and Angela Merkel is trade. Did anything on that front come out of these talks?

RASCOE: Well, there's this May 1 deadline to decide whether the EU will remain exempt from U.S. import tariffs on steel and aluminum. Merkel came here wanting an extension or a permanent exemption for the EU. She said she had an exchange of views with President Trump on this issue. But once again, she said the decision would lie with him. A big theme of these meetings between these two leaders has been the idea that the U.S. has been taken advantage of over the years and that Germany has not been doing its part, whether it's about spending on defense or on trade. President Trump has said that it's a disgrace that the U.S. has such a big trade deficit with the EU and that he's working to fix that. President Trump noted that some of his actions may not be popular in Europe. Here's a little more of what he had to say on that.


TRUMP: I believe that, you know, when I look at the numbers in Germany and some other countries, they may not like Donald Trump. But you have to understand that means I'm doing a good job because I'm representing the United States. Angela is representing Germany.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, Angela Merkel is the second European leader President Trump has met with this week. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had a state dinner earlier in the week. How would you compare the dynamic between these two leaders?

RASCOE: It's not the same at all. Now, President Trump insisted that he has a great relationship with the German chancellor. But it definitely was not as warm and fuzzy as it was with Macron. Merkel did seem somewhat deferential to President Trump. She kind of said - acknowledged some of the areas where they disagree. She said, we're working on the trade deficit. She knows President Trump is not happy with that. And they're working on spending more on the military. So they were cordial with each other, but it wasn't as close as he was with Macron.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe speaking with us from the White House. Thanks.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.