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First Trump-Merkel meeting reflects different views, styles

March 17, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump met for the first time Friday, a meeting that might have smoothed relations after a rocky start. Though they exchanged compliments, Mr. Trump pressed Merkel on NATO defense spending as well as trade issues, and the chancellor was asked to comment on the president's combative style. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The veteran leader of Germany and the new American chief executive, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump met today at the White House in what many thought would be a moment to smooth relations after a rocky start. Whether that was the outcome is far from clear.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: Chancellor Merkel got a warm presidential welcome at the West Wing this morning, yet minutes later, an odd scene in the Oval Office, Merkel offering to shake hands, but getting no response.

ANGELA MERKEL, German Chancellor (through interpreter): Do you want to have a handshake?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: At a joint news conference later, the two did exchange compliments in prepared statements.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our alliance is a symbol of strength and cooperation to the world. It is the foundation of a very, very hopeful future.

ANGELA MERKEL (through interpreter): We had a very good first exchange of views, so I’m very much looking forward to the talks we will have over lunch.

MARGARET WARNER: But the body language of their first meeting wasn’t warm, perhaps reflecting the two leaders’ sharply different styles and viewpoints, Mr. Trump, the businessman-turned-politician who campaigned on America first, and Merkel, political veteran, now Europe’s most vocal defender. It’s been a touchy long-distance relationship up to today.

Last year, candidate Trump accused Merkel of ruining Germany by accepting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know what went wrong with her. I don’t know what went wrong. Angela, what happened? What happened, Angela?

MARGARET WARNER: Today, the chancellor was asked whether she had any reservations about the president’s combative style.

ANGELA MERKEL (through interpreter): People have different abilities, different characteristics, traits of character, have different origins, have found their way into politics along different pathways. Well, that’s diversity, which is good. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find compromises, but that’s what we have been elected for.

MARGARET WARNER: Two of those areas of difficulty, NATO, and the European Union. Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO states for not paying their share of the common defense. He said today he had pressed Merkel to boost defense spending to 2 percent of economic output, the alliance’s stated goal.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

MARGARET WARNER: Merkel repeated Germany’s pledge to get to 2 percent of GDP within the next seven years.

ANGELA MERKEL (through interpreter): NATO is of prime importance to us. It wasn’t without very good reason that we said during our summit meeting in Wales that also Germany needs to increase expenditure. We committed to this 2 percent goal until 2024.

MARGARET WARNER: The president has also criticized Germany for running a huge manufacturing trade surplus with the U.S.

Today, he said:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States has been treated very, very unfairly by many countries over the years. and that’s going to stop. But I’m not an isolationist. I’m a free trader. But I’m also a fair trader. Germany has done very well with its trade deals with the United States. And I give them credit for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Merkel noted that any trade agreement has to between the U.S. and the E.U.

ANGELA MERKEL (through interpreter): It will be of benefit to both countries. Let me be very honest and very candid. A free trade agreement with the United States of America has not been all that popular with Germany either.

MARGARET WARNER: Merkel’s dealings with President Trump may affect her own popularity at a critical moment. She’s seeking a fourth term as chancellor in elections later this year, and faces challenges both from the left and the right.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the day’s other news: President Trump defended the White House’s handling of his claim that President Obama had him wiretapped. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, had quoted a FOX News analyst who suggested British intelligence handled the wiretapping. The British flatly denied it and complained to the White House.

But at his news conference today, the president dismissed the furor.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: FOX News issued a statement today saying that it has — quote — “no evidence of any kind that Mr. Trump was surveilled at any time in any way.”

But with German Chancellor Merkel looking on, the president then connected his own claim to allegations back in 2013 that the Obama administration monitored her phone calls.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps.