A ques­tion of trust:

Merkel treads care­fully with Trump

Lesotho Times - - International -

BER­LIN/WASH­ING­TON — Last month, in a phone con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Don­ald Trump and An­gela Merkel, the US pres­i­dent shared his views on Turk­ish leader Tayyip Er­do­gan.

“He’s a great guy”, Trump told the Ger­man chan­cel­lor, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­iar with the ex­change.

Merkel lis­tened po­litely be­fore point­ing out that Er­do­gan had been lob­bing vit­riol at Ger­many and its Euro­pean al­lies for weeks, de­nounc­ing them as the de­scen­dents of Nazis.

Trump was sur­prised, the sources said. He ap­peared un­aware that Ankara and Ber­lin were in the midst of a fierce diplo­matic row over whether Turk­ish min­is­ters should be al­lowed to cam­paign in Ger­many for a ref­er­en­dum on boost­ing Er­do­gan’s pow­ers.

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. The Ger­man gov­ern­ment de­clined com­ment, cit­ing the con­fi­den­tial na­ture of the call.

The ex­change, weeks af­ter Merkel paid her first visit to Trump in Wash­ing­ton, un­der­scored the chal­lenge the Ger­man leader faces as she tries to forge a re­la­tion­ship with a pres­i­dent that half a dozen Euro­pean of­fi­cials who spoke to Reuters de­scribed as er­ratic, ill pre­pared and prone to rhetor­i­cal ex­cess.

Six months af­ter Trump’s elec­tion and a lit­tle more than a week be­fore he makes his first trip to Europe as pres­i­dent, of­fi­cials in Ber­lin and other Euro­pean cap­i­tals are still un­sure about where the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion stands on many of the big is­sues that con­cern them.

Cou­pled with this con­fu­sion is re­lief that he has not turned US for­eign pol­icy on its head, as some feared, dur­ing his first months in of­fice.

Trump is no longer call­ing NATO ob­so­lete. And he has kept Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin at arm’s length. Apart from his sug­ges­tion last month that an at­tack on po­lice­men in Paris would help far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the French elec­tion, Trump has not in­ter­vened in Euro­pean pol­i­tics or sought to un­der­mine the Euro­pean Union.

His con­tro­ver­sial Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Mike Flynn has been fired, re­placed by H.R. Mc­mas­ter, who is seen as a smart, steady hand. And the in­flu­ence of Steve Ban­non, the White House ad­viser Euro­peans fear most, may be on the wane.

“We feel there is now a pro­duc­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship,” said Peter Wit­tig, the Ger­man am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton.

But be­neath the ve­neer are lin­ger­ing ques­tions about the pres­i­dent’s char­ac­ter and his poli­cies on a range of is­sues.

Ger­man of­fi­cials re­main wor­ried about a shift to pro­tec­tion­ism un­der Trump, de­spite his less con­fronta­tional rhetoric to­ward China and his de­ci­sion to drop con­tro­ver­sial plans for a bor­der ad­just­ment tax.

Sev­eral Euro­pean diplo­mats ex­pressed con­cern about what they view as the lack of a co­her­ent US strat­egy on Syria.

Some of them said the abrupt fir­ing of FBI di­rec­tor James Comey showed Trump was ca­pa­ble of tak­ing rash de­ci­sions on is­sues of ma­jor im­por­tance.

Re­ports that he re­vealed highly clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to Rus­sia’s for­eign min­is­ter at a meet­ing in the Oval Of­fice last week seem likely to ag­gra­vate the level of dis­trust in Euro­pean cap­i­tals.

“The doubts about the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of Trump’s team, at least in for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­icy, have re­ceded,” one vet­eran Ger­man diplo­mat said. “But the doubts about Trump him­self, his char­ac­ter, ma­tu­rity and trust­wor­thi­ness, have only grown.”

A sec­ond Ger­man of­fi­cial said: “You shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate the in­flu­ence of Trump on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Unique chal­lenge

Few for­eign lead­ers have as much rid­ing on the re­la­tion­ship as Merkel.

Ger­many re­lies heav­ily on the United States for its se­cu­rity. And a tit-for-tat pro­tec­tion­ist spi­ral could threaten its ex­port-re­liant econ­omy.

In July, just two months be­fore Ger­many holds an elec­tion, Merkel will host a tricky G20 sum­mit in Ham­burg, where Trump is ex­pected to meet Putin for the first time. Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan and China’s Xi Jin­ping will also be there.

Merkel has been spar­ring with Putin and Er­do­gan for over a decade and worked with two US pres­i­dents be­fore Trump.

She formed a close re­la­tion­ship with Ge­orge W. Bush in his Europe-friendly sec­ond term.

And al­though she got off to a tricky start with Barack Obama af­ter deny­ing him a chance to speak at the Bran­den­burg Gate dur­ing his 2008 cam­paign, the two ended up form­ing a close bond.

Be­fore trav­el­ing to Brus­sels to meet Trump on May 25, she will ap­pear with Obama at the land­mark in cen­tral Ber­lin.

Trump, her aides ac­knowl­edge, presents a unique chal­lenge be­cause of his un­pre­dictabil­ity and am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to­ward Europe. He is deeply un­pop­u­lar in Ger­many, mak­ing it po­lit­i­cally awk­ward for her to get too close in an elec­tion year.

Nev­er­the­less, there is sat­is­fac­tion in Ber­lin that Merkel and Trump have got­ten off to a rel­a­tively smooth start, af­ter he ac­cused her of “ru­in­ing” Ger­many with her open-door refugee poli­cies and she re­sponded to his vic­tory by sig­nal­ing she would only co­op­er­ate with him on the ba­sis of com­mon val­ues.

The two lead­ers have spo­ken four times on the phone since her visit in mid-march.

Both sides have played down the in­ci­dent that dom­i­nated cov­er­age of that visit: Trump’s fail­ure to shake Merkel’s hand in the Oval Of­fice.

Last month, Trump, the brash for­mer real es­tate mogul from New York, told the As­so­ci­ated Press that he had “un­be­liev­able chem­istry” with Merkel, the re­served for­mer physi­cist from com­mu­nist East Ger­many.

Ger­man of­fi­cials speak of a sys­tem­atic ef­fort by the chan­cel­lor to min­i­mize ten­sions with Trump, point­ing to the in­vi­ta­tion she ex­tended to his daugh­ter Ivanka to at­tend a G20 women’s sum­mit in Ber­lin in April.

They note that Trump has not pulled out of the Paris cli­mate deal, NAFTA or the nu­clear deal be­tween western pow­ers and Iran, as he had threat­ened dur­ing his cam­paign for the pres­i­dency.

Trump has said he will not make a de­ci­sion on the cli­mate deal un­til af­ter a G7 sum­mit in late May, where Merkel and other Euro­pean lead­ers are ex­pected to lobby him hard to stay in.

“There are signs that this ad­min- is­tra­tion is ca­pa­ble of be­ing in­flu­enced,” said a se­nior French of­fi­cial. “You can talk to the peo­ple around Trump and give in­put. They are per­haps more mal­leable and open to out­side views than many peo­ple thought.”

Ex­plain­ing the EU

Dur­ing Merkel’s visit in March, she spent a long time ex­plain­ing to Trump and his team how the Euro­pean Union worked, ac­cord­ing to par­tic­i­pants.

By the end of four hours of meet­ings - in­clud­ing a half hour oneon-one be­tween the two lead­ers, a meet­ing with busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, and a lunch - Trump had dropped his push for a bi­lat­eral trade deal with Ger­many and ac­cepted that only an agree­ment with the EU was pos­si­ble.

Al­though Ger­man of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that the prospect of re­viv­ing TTIP — the transat­lantic trade deal Europe tried to clinch with Obama — seems re­mote, they were pleased that Trump seemed open to the idea of ne­go­ti­at­ing with the EU.

They were also re­as­sured that Trump proved to be a good lis­tener. At the end of the two hour lunch, when aides to the pres­i­dent re­minded him it was time to head off to his Mar-a-lago re­sort in Florida for the week­end, he de­murred, say­ing the dis­cus­sion was go­ing well and his de­par­ture would have to wait.

Of­fi­cials in the Ger­man chan­cellery were pleas­antly sur­prised when, 10 days af­ter the visit, Trump called Merkel to con­grat­u­late her on a sur­prise win for her party in the tiny state of Saar­land - even if he used the call, one source said, to harp about “fake polls”.

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. The Ger­man gov­ern­ment de­clined com­ment.

Over the past months, Ger­man of­fi­cials have made a con­certed ef­fort to reach out to a wide range of of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton, in­clud­ing peo­ple in the White House and Congress.

Ger­man Fi­nance Min­is­ter Wolf­gang Schaeu­ble met with Trump’s eco­nomic ad­viser Gary Cohn dur­ing the spring meet­ings of the IMF and World Bank last month.

His deputy Jens Spahn vis­ited the White House, see­ing Ban­non and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kush­ner.

This out­reach is es­pe­cially im­por­tant, Ger­man of­fi­cials say, be­cause top pol­icy po­si­tions in the State De­part­ment re­main un­filled more than three months since Trump took of­fice.

But it is also a form of hedg­ing. No one knows for sure who Trump is lis­ten­ing to to­day and whether that might change to­mor­row.

“You sim­ply can’t af­ford to put all your eggs in one bas­ket with this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Robin Ni­blett, di­rec­tor of the Lon­don-based think tank Chatham House.

“Trump is on one day and off the other. One day you have a deal and the next day you don’t. You have to hedge. And you have to cover your­self at home be­cause he can dump you in it at any mo­ment.”

Ger­many’s Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dur­ing a joint news con­fer­ence in March.

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