Politics

Trump, Merkel Portray a Functional Relationship

President again targets Jon Tester over Ronny Jackson allegations

President Donald Trump shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House April 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel portrayed a functional — if not exactly chummy — relationship on Friday, just days after the U.S. leader’s effusive visit with his French counterpart.

Flanked by the German leader, Trump again issued a new warning to Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., for publicly disclosing allegations against Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson that led the president’s military doctor to withdraw his nomination to run the veterans-focused agency. Jackson did so amid allegations of being intoxicated on the job (even allegedly crashing a government vehicle), fostering a hostile work environment and handing out prescription drugs too freely.

“I don’t think that state is going to put up with it,” he said of Montana, calling Jackson a “great man.” On Thursday, Trump highlighted the tough re-election race expected for Tester, noting in a television interview that he won the state easily in the 2016 general election. (Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales/Roll Call ratings puts the Senate race there as tilting Democratic.)

Trump’s rebuke of Tester came on the same day the National Republican Senate Committee issued a statement criticizing the senator — and pointing to a U.S. Secret Service statement saying the agency has no record of “any incident” involving Jackson. It featured this headline: “Tester’s gamble backfires.” The Senate GOP’s campaign arm echoed the president, saying Tester’s actions are “sure to hurt his reelection prospects in a state Trump won by more than 20 points.”

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The U.S. and German leaders’ comments during a joint press conference after several hours of meetings at the executive mansion revealed some space between them on pressing issues that U.S. lawmakers are watching closely. Chief among those is the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump soon could remove the United States.

The German leader said the existing Iran nuclear deal should remain intact, but echoed French President Emmanuel Macron, who stood at the same podium on Tuesday, in calling for a second deal to expand its terms. Macron is proposing to ink a second pact focused on ending all Iranian nuclear activity, curtailing its ballistic missile program and containing Iran in the region.

“Anywhere you go in the Middle East where there’s a problem,” Trump said Friday, “Iran is right there.”

On that point, the U.S. commander in chief and his European leaders agree. But on the fate of the existing nuclear accord, how much they agree won’t be fully known until Trump in the coming weeks decides whether to pull out. Like Macron, Merkel came to Washington with a message of keeping their unified front intact, saying the U.S. and Germany “should be in lock step” on the matter.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday he believes the European duo’s biggest challenge will be convincing their other counterparts to bend to Trump’s wishes by nixing or extending the existing pact’s sunset clause. Many of that accord’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities phase out over the next 10 to 15 years. “He mentioned 2025, but it’s just hard to tell” what might be possible in a new round of talks, Corker said of comments Macron made during an address Wednesday to a joint session of Congress.

Corker and others have called for Trump to walk a fine line on Iran and avoid any rhetoric or actions that could spark hostilities. But the president opted for muscle-flexing on Friday, a tactic he credits for helping get North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to offer peace talks that the White House contends might happen by June.

“They will not be doing nuclear weapons. You can bank on it,” Trump said with a stern expression, raising his voice a bit.

While Trump on Friday again demanded NATO members pay more annually into the alliance’s coffers — he believes the U.S. pays a disproportionately high amount — Merkel offered only a modest increase. She said Germany’s latest budget devoted 1.3 percent of its GDP to the alliance; members are supposed to pay 2 percent each year.

But there were areas on which she and Trump did appear in “lock step.”

Merkel joined Trump in criticizing the World Trade Organization, saying its inability to foster international agreements means bilateral trade pacts are more likely. She noted she can “envision” U.S.-EU trade negotiations toward a one-on-one deal. And she hailed the GOP tax overhaul law, saying it has made the United States an “attractive” place for German companies to do business.

But on a coming May 1 deadline for U.S. and EU officials to work out an EU waiver for Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, Merkel said the decision is Trump’s.

Macron v. Merkel

Where Trump and Macron complimented one another repeatedly during their joint press conference, Trump scanned the audience at times on Friday as Merkel spoke. He pulled his younger French counterpart in for an extended high five-hug Tuesday, but Merkel only got two business-like handshakes when they met between the blue podiums with presidential seals affixed. Macron gave Trump a chummy slap on the back that was audible across the spacious hall as they left the East Room; three days later, Merkel efficiently departed the stage first, with Trump merely gesturing for her to take the lead. 

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There were no U.S. military members with flags of the 50 states lining the White House’s North Driveway when Merkel’s black limousine pulled through a large black gate on a dreary and cool Friday morning. Macron got one.

And there were only six staffers watching from the stairs of the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building as she arrived. There was a larger group intently watching the French president pull up to the West Wing and warmly greet Trump.

The U.S. and French leaders greeted each other like old friends, with handshakes and a hug — and even a kiss on the cheek. But with Merkel, Trump was noticeably less effusive.

Sure, Macron’s visit was the first state visit of Trump’s presidency. But the differences in the way the two European leaders arrived was telling.

The less-than-warm Merkel-Trump relationship — and a shared desire to describe it as close — was on their mind Friday. “We actually have had a great relationship right from the beginning, and a lot of people didn’t understand that,” Trump said minutes after she arrived.

Moments later, Merkel offered her own sales pitch: “I thought it was very important, on this first visit outside of Europe [since Germany’s national election] to come to the United States … to yet again underly that we wish to deepen our relationship further.”

Heather Conley, a former senior State Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week, “in some ways, President Macron, I believe, has broken the code when it comes to dealing with President Trump.

“He has been, I think, the most successful in trying to convince the president to think through some very important issues, certainly to France and to the European Union,” Conley said. Now, let’s contrast that to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: She is Europe’s longest-serving European leader. She is a scientist. She is cautious. She is careful.

“Her nickname is Mutti, or mother. She’s low-key. She’s an everyday person, a slayer of political challengers and egotistical males,” she said, adding of her one-day-only visit with the U.S. leader: In, out, get the job done. So we … see those two contrasting styles.”

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