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Tensions show as Trump, Merkel meet for first time

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - 07:46

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Stark differences between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on everything from trade to immigration were in full view during an icy first meeting at the White House Friday.

[WASHINGTON] Stark differences between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on everything from trade to immigration were in full view during an icy first meeting at the White House Friday.

In a frequently awkward joint press conference, Mr Trump and Mrs Merkel showed little common ground as they addressed a host of thorny issues including Nato, defence spending and free trade deals.

For most of the 30 minutes in the East Room, Mrs Merkel was stony-faced as Mr Trump ripped into Washington's Nato allies for not paying for their "fair share" for transatlantic defense and demanded "fair and reciprocal trade" deals.

The veteran German chancellor had arrived at a snowy White House, hoping to reverse a chill in relations after Mr Trump's incendiary election rhetoric.

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The visit began cordially, with the pair shaking hands at the entrance of the White House.

But later, sitting side-by-side in the Oval Office, Mrs Merkel's suggestion of another handshake went unheard or ignored by Mr Trump - an awkward moment in what are usually highly scripted occasions.

There was never going to be an easy rapport between the cautious German chancellor and impulsive US president.

For years, Mrs Merkel - a trained physicist - had been president Barack Obama's closest international partner, with the two sharing a strong rapport and a similar deliberative approach.

Before coming to office in January, Mr Trump had set the tone by calling Mrs Merkel's acceptance of refugees a "catastrophic mistake" and suggestion she was "ruining Germany".

In a similar vein, Mrs Merkel has sought to remind - some in the White House would say lecture - the real estate mogul about democratic values.

Comments like that have prompted some of Mr Trump's fiercest critics to declare Mrs Merkel the new "leader of the free world" - a moniker normally taken up by the occupant of the White House.

During the press conference, Mrs Merkel said "it's much, much better to talk to one another and not about one another, and I think our conversation proved this". But even the lighter moments were tinged with tension.

Amid a furore over Mr Trump's unfounded allegations that he was wiretapped by Mr Obama, the new president cracked a joke referring to past revelations that Mrs Merkel's phone had also been bugged by his Democratic predecessor.

"As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps," he said.

Mrs Merkel appeared not to find the humour in what had been a major political scandal.

And neither side tried to make small talk about Mr Trump's own background.

His family hails from Kallstadt, a tidy village nestled in south-west Germany's lush wine country. His grandparents left for America more than a century ago fleeing poverty and later, after a brief return, trouble with the law.

Although Mr Trump has tempered his criticism of Nato and the personal attacks against European leaders, officials still fret that Mr Trump has too closely embraced the nationalist ideology of key advisor Steve Bannon.

Mr Bannon has championed trade protectionism and opposed the European Union and other multilateral institutions that underpin the world order.

Mr Trump on Friday pledged to "respect historic institutions" but Mr Bannon, also in the East Room, gave a chuckle as Merkel was asked whether she believed Mr Trump had lied and treated the European Union disrespectfully.

Mr Trump insisted he was not isolationist, saying: "I'm a free trader but also a fair trader."

Mrs Merkel rejected Mr Trump's suggestion that individual European countries should negotiate free trade deals with the United States, rather than under existing EU-US negotiations.

"I hope we can come back to the table and talk about the agreement" between the EU and US, she said.

AFP

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