- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2017

The White House will attempt to put a positive spin on U.S.-German relations this week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Washington for her first personal encounter with President Trump, after months of disagreements over trade, immigration and Mr. Trump’s criticism of the news media.

Administration officials have downplayed acrimony between the two ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, saying the goal will be to “have a positive interaction” and that Mr. Trump is even keen to seek Ms. Merkel’s advice on how to manage relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The president will be very interested in hearing the chancellor’s views on her experience interacting with Putin,” said one senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity Friday. “He’s going to be very interested in hearing her insights on what it’s like to deal with the Russians.”

The comments suggested that Mr. Trump will pursue a conciliatory posture toward Ms. Merkel, despite the president having set German nerves on edge over the past year by expressing a desire for warmer U.S.-Russian relations that could have far-reaching security implications for Germany and wider Europe.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which the two leaders can see eye to eye on Russia and other matters — most notably trade and immigration — during a meeting that could smooth or dramatically increase tensions with Washington’s perhaps most vital European ally.

Crucial face-to-face

“The stakes for this meeting, I would argue, and for this relationship even more so, are very high,” said Heather A. Conley, who heads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She said Germany represents “the most critical relationship for the U.S. with a European power.”

“It’s actually a really important meeting to set up the tone for the relationship in itself,” Ms. Conley told reporters on a conference call Friday, adding that the meeting could establish a “modus vivendi for these two leaders to really create a more stable framework for this critical relationship.”

The global economy, Germany’s NATO contributions and wider U.S.-German policy cohesion toward both Russia and China are all expected to be on the table. But until they are, concerns are high that Tuesday’s discussions could be derailed by personal and ideological disagreements.

Posturing between Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel became biting in January, when the new president charged that the German chancellor’s open-door immigration policies were an invitation to terrorists and a “catastrophe” — an assertion that Mr. Trump followed with his executive order blocking refugees from the U.S. and temporarily banning visas for seven Muslim-majority nations.

Although the two leaders engaged in a reportedly positive telephone call and issued a joint statement underscoring the importance of NATO, the appearance of acrimony continued when Ms. Merkel issued a sharp criticism of Mr. Trump’s visa and refugee order, asserting that it was not justified.

The German chancellor expressed distaste on another front in mid-February after Mr. Trump tweeted that the “FAKE NEWS media” is the “enemy of the American people!”

At the time, Ms. Merkel told an audience that included Vice President Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference that she “advocate[s] a free, independent press” and that Germany has “very good experience” with “mutual respect” between the government and the media.

While she did not explicitly refer to Mr. Trump by name, many interpreted her comments as an indirect jab at the American president.

Deeper problems

It has, however, been a less public series of Trump administration statements on trade with Europe that are seen to have rankled officials in Berlin most deeply.

Mr. Trump has vowed to move quickly toward a bilateral U.S. trade deal with Britain after it leaves the European Union. Analysts say such a deal would dim the prospect of a more complicated multilateral agreement between Washington and the EU — something Germany, as the bloc’s most powerful economy, had sought for years with the Obama administration.

While officials from the Trump White House claimed Friday to have not yet “formulated a final position” on whether to abandon or pursue the so-called “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,” Berlin’s expectations for such a deal are said to be low.

The reason is that Peter Navarro, who heads Mr. Trump’s new National Trade Council, declared talks toward the U.S.-EU trade deal to be effectively dead in late January.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Navarro blamed the situation on Germany, asserting that Berlin was guilty of using a “grossly undervalued” euro to exploit the U.S. and its EU partners.

Germany stands as America’s largest European trading partner, and Ms. Conley said Friday that the trade issue should factor heavily into this week’s Trump-Merkel meeting.

She noted that Berlin “also has great economic strength when it comes to China” — a reality likely being weighed with care by the Trump administration, as it seeks to reshape Washington’s own economic posture toward Beijing.

Finding a positive spin

The White House has sought to portray this week’s meeting as a golden opportunity for Mr. Trump to show respect for Ms. Merkel, the longest-serving democratically elected leader in western Europe.

The administration officials who spoke Friday said Mr. Trump was impressed by Ms. Merkel’s leadership, particularly with regard to Germany’s role alongside France in seeking peace in Ukraine and Berlin’s commitment to the ongoing international military campaign in Afghanistan.

One official said the expectation is that the two leaders will “have a very positive, cordial meeting.”

While Mr. Trump has criticized NATO members on grounds that they are not paying their fair share to uphold the alliance, one official said the president was “heartened” by the German government’s determination to reach NATO’s benchmark of committing 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense by 2024.

The administration officials also said Mr. Trump plans to ask for Ms. Merkel’s advice on what role Washington can most helpfully play in ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict gripping eastern Ukraine.

The Obama administration worked closely with Germany to uphold U.S.-EU economic sanctions against Russian officials as the Ukrainian military became pitted against Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

With uncertainty now looming over the Trump administration’s posture toward the situation, Jeffrey Rathe, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies who spoke alongside Ms. Conley on Friday, said, “Germany is extremely concerned about Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine.”

Russia policy is at the top of Germany’s list when it comes to European security,” Mr. Rathke said, adding that “the election of President Trump led to some uncertainty in Germany about whether U.S. policy toward Russia would be changing.

“It seems for the time being that basically President Trump, willingly or unwillingly, is continuing the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia,” he said. “I think that’s something that Germany welcomes.”

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