They say opposites attract … but nobody told Trump and Merkel

Julian Borger in Washington
Angela Merkel on her relationship with Donald Trump: ‘People are different. People have different abilities, different origins … That is diversity. That is good.’ Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The cameras clicked and the photographers asked Angela Merkel and Donald Trump to shake hands. “Do you want to have a handshake?” she asked.

Trump looked straight ahead with a presidential grimace frozen on his face but gave no response. If he had heard her, he did not show it.

The most powerful leader in Europe was offering an opening to start mending bilateral ties that have frayed badly since Trump’s stunning rise. But the president was preoccupied with looking resolute for the cameras, and behind them, his supporters.

The moment passed and its embarrassment washed over the chancellor’s face. This was a man who, after all, held hands with Theresa May – the messenger of Brexit. Merkel, the embodiment of European unity, could not even get a perfunctory shake.

That eventually came, at the joint press conference, but the personal chemistry did not improve. On the podium, Trump talked past Merkel, launching into a version of his campaign speech about the need to rebuild the American industrial base in the wake of a string of bad trade deals.

The president said he supported Nato, but then segued into a claim that the US had been ripped off by its allies, who he alleged owed “vast sums of money”. “This is very unfair to the US,” he said. “These nations must pay what they owe.”

The performance suggested the new proprietor of a firm who had discovered its books had been cooked by the previous owner and his shady business partners, one of whom he was now parading in front of the angry shareholders.

Trump’s one moment of attempted levity was a pointed joke about how being wiretapped by Barack Obama was what the two leaders had in common. It allowed him to restate his claim to have been bugged, and shrug off questions on whether the White House should apologise to Britain for suggesting it was carrying out the surveillance on Obama’s behalf.

And the quip served as a reminder to Merkel that, however much she might miss Obama in that moment, things had not always been easy between them, particularly after it was revealed in 2013 that the NSA had hacked her mobile phone.

Trump smiled broadly; Merkel did not. She remained stony-faced to that and his jibes about trade and defence.

She voiced appreciation for the “gracious hospitality”, though by this point it seemed likely she was being ironic. She noted it was better to “talk to each other rather than about one another” – a reference to Trump’s trolling of her leadership during his campaign, particularly on immigration. “What she’s done in Germany is insane,” he declared in an interview in October 2015.

Without directly challenging Trump, the chancellor went through almost all his talking points and knocked them down. She argued that trade deals tend to benefit both parties, and noting that Germany had pledged to raise its defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024.

This was a gently worded riposte to Trump’s claims that US allies owed huge sums to Nato, pointing out that the issue is not unpaid dues but a promise by European allies to spend more on defence over the next few years.

This was never going to be easy. The president and the chancellor now represent opposite poles in the western camp.

Merkel built her leadership on the postwar concrete of the liberal order – free markets, the European Union and Nato.

Trump is dismissive of all those institutions, belittling them by Twitter, and offering lip service in their support only when pressed. His chief strategist, the White House ideologue Steve Bannon, has explicitly called for the dismantling of the old liberal order and given support to the European far right.

Merkel never tries to pretend when she is not enjoying herself. She parried a question from a German reporter about what she made of Trump’s personal style by pointing out that it is a leader’s job to talk to other leaders who are not like them.

“People are different. People have different abilities, different origins … That is diversity. That is good,” she explained, sounding like a teacher telling her pupils they were being joined by a new classmate with special needs.

And she added: “If things went without problems, we wouldn’t need politicians.”

In other words: it is because I have to deal with people like this that you pay me the big bucks.

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