Early Friday afternoon, President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel held one of the more awkward photo ops in recent memory. Merkel sat, looking like she was trying hard to appear casual. Trump barely bothered, grimacing tightly. When photographers asked for a handshake, Merkel asked Trump if they should shake hands. He either did not hear or pretended not to.
As it turns out, this was only a warm-up for the dual press conference the two leaders held later Friday afternoon, during which Merkel stood beside Trump as he ridiculed a German reporter, lied about his statements on his baseless conspiracy theory that President Obama surveilled him, and refused to back down on claims that have set off a diplomatic incident with the United Kingdom.
The fact that it might be a tense conversation was clear from the two leaders’ opening statements. Trump, during his, once again complained about the cost of NATO. “I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost defense,” he said. “Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.”
As for Merkel, she used her own statement to issue a veiled scolding for Trump, who previously said she was “ruining” Germany with a “catastrophic mistake” of an open-door refugee policy. “I've always said it's much, much better to talk to one another and not about one another, and I think our conversation proved this,” Merkel said.
Perhaps that is so, but there was little talking to each other during the press conference; instead, Trump shot from the hip and Merkel sought to either smooth things over or stay out of the way. It wasn’t an easy task.
Trump got several questions about his continued, inexplicable insistence that President Obama surveilled him prior to the election. He ignored the first, which came from a German reporter, but answered it the second time, when a second German reporter asked if it had been a mistake for Sean Spicer to read a story in the White House briefing room on Thursday that accused the British intelligence agency GCHQ of helping to surveil Trump.
The president started off with an uncomfortable deadpan remark—joke?—about the 2013 revelation that Merkel had been the subject of NSA wiretaps.
“As far as wiretapping I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps,” Trump said, to somewhat incredulous laughter in the room.
“And just to finish your question, we said nothing,” Trump continued. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn't make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn't be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”
Trump’s claim of having tendered no opinion was a lie. In a series of March 4 tweets lodging the allegation, and he most certainly did “make an opinion,” calling it “McCarthyism” and “Nixon/Watergate” and calling Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy!” And in pinning the story on Andrew Napolitano, a onetime New Jersey judge who is a Fox legal analyst, Trump implied that it didn’t matter whether he gave a platform to baseless accusations, much less endorsed them, because he hadn’t originated them. The buck doesn’t stop in Trump’s Oval Office.
The problems with this approach became clear with Britain’s fury about the GCHQ accusation. After complaints from U.K. officials, the White House issued a statement saying, “Ambassador Kim Darroch and Sir Mark Lyall expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and [National Security Adviser H.R.] McMaster. Mr. Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story.”
If that explanation was intended to soothe tensions with America’s closest ally, Trump did all he could to throw things back into chaos during the press conference, managing to poke sore spots for both Britain and Germany at the same time.
Trump also berated a German reporter who asked Merkel about Trump’s “isolationism” and then asked the president why he was “scared of adversity in the news.”
“Nice friendly reporter,” he said sarcastically. “I am a trader, I am a fair trader, a trader that wants to see good for everybody worldwide, but I'm not an isolationist by any stretch of the imagination, so I don't know what newspaper you're reading, so I guess that would be another example of fake news.”
If the goal of the press conference was to present some sort of unified face on trade, however, that didn’t happen. Merkel offered a platitudinous plea for a “win-win” solution, but Trump was more interested in grievance and competition. “I would say that the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the United States but hopefully we can even it out,” he said.
American reporters were more interested in finding out about the state of the Republican Party’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. Trump has put his weight behind the bill and met with members of the conservative Republican Study Committee to try to make the case for the bill. The bill looks tenuous at best, beset by criticism from moderate and conservative Republicans alike, but Trump promised a happy ending.
“In the end we’re going to have a great health-care plan,” Trump said, but he didn’t say how, preferring to dwell on the existing law. “Obamacare will fail. It will fold. it will close up very, very soon if something isn't done. I've often said politically the best thing I can do is absolutely nothing. Wait one year and then even the Democrats will say, ‘Please, please, you gotta help us.’”
But Trump offered no indications on what changes were going to be made to the bill to bring more votes into the fold.
During the press conference, the American journalist Mark Halperin asked Merkel a question about whether she thought Trump’s “different style” than past president was good for the world. The chancellor gamely tried to answer.
“For Germany I can say, well people are different, people have different abilities, different traits of character, have different origins, have found their way into politics along different pathways,” she said through a translator. “Which, well, that is diversity, which is good! Sometimes it’s difficult to find compromises, but that’s what we’ve been elected for.”
The fact that Merkel had to work hard to say something diplomatic in response to such a softball question said a great deal about the press conference. But give the chancellor credit for effort—Trump didn’t even bother to try diplomacy.