Trump and Merkel Take Off

Where the United States and Germany Go From Here

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, March 2017. Jim Bourg / REUTERS

Few political personalities are as different as those of U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump is a political novice, businessman, and former television personality with little apparent appetite for consensus building. Merkel is a political professional whose nearly 12 years as Germany’s leader have been defined by a knack for quiet compromise.

Those contrasts were on display during Merkel’s visit to the White House on March 17—most visibly, when Trump tried to crack a joke at Merkel’s expense in a question-and-answer session with the media. “At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said, referring to the fact that the U.S. National Security Agency had at one point spied on Merkel’s cell phone and to his administration's own unsubtantiated claim that the government of former U.S. President Barack Obama had asked British intelligence to wiretap Trump Tower. Merkel only winced. That episode, an awkward sequence in which members of the press asked the two leaders for a handshake that did not materialize, and a German reporter’s question to Trump—in which she asked the president why he “so often . . . said things that cannot be proven”—have been the German media’s focus in the days since Merkel’s trip.  

Despite those hiccups, Merkel probably viewed the five-hour visit as a substantive success, since it provided her with a firsthand view of a new White House with an apparently divided approach to foreign policy. One group in the Trump administration, represented by such officials as the White House adviser Steve Bannon, opposes EU integration and economic interconnectedness, both of which are chief German interests. Another, represented by figures such as Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, appears to favor a more traditional approach to those issues. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Pence and Mattis emphasized that they cherish the United States’ European partners and

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