"Good friends can disagree,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the two leaders answered questions about their differences on a controversial Russian natural gas pipeline.
Biden said the United States and Germany would be looking at what practical measures could be taken if Ukraine’s energy security was weakened.
The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, nearing completion, will allow Germany to double the amount of gas it imports from Russia. But it would bypass Ukraine, thus depriving Kyiv of lucrative transit fees.
Biden said he and Merkel agreed that “Russia must not be allowed to use energy as a weapon to coerce or threaten its neighbors.”
Following an afternoon of White House meetings between top officials of the United States and Germany, Merkel said, “We've come to different assessments as to what this project entails. But let me say very clearly: Our idea is Ukraine remains a transit country for natural gas.”
Merkel “probably aligns fairly closely to the president on their assessment of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin — both want to have some type of relationship with Russia, but it's not a partnership, and they see clearly Russia is an adversary,” said Dan Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program.
WATCH: White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara's report
Prior to the meeting between Merkel and Biden, Representative Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hoped Biden would urge the German chancellor “to adopt a more clear-eyed policy” on the pipeline.
Both leaders “need to realize Berlin could never sufficiently mitigate the severe consequences to Ukraine and European energy security if the pipeline is operationalized. This Russian geopolitical weapon must be stopped before it is too late,” McCaul said.
McCaul also said he hoped Biden would steer Merkel’s view on Beijing amid the “malign actions” of the Chinese Communist Party.
Germany has strong trade ties with China, and Merkel is seen as trying to avoid having her country choose between Washington and Beijing.
“Trade with China needs to rest on the assumption that we have a level playing field,” Merkel told reporters Thursday.
Biden said the United States and Germany have agreed they “will stand up for democratic principles and universal rights when we see China or any other country working to undermine free and open societies.”
Merkel’s visit was overshadowed by disaster back home. Flooding has caused Germany’s worst mass loss of life in years — at least 80 people dead and hundreds more missing — after heavy rains turned streets into rivers and caused houses to collapse.
"It's a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families who've lost loved ones,” Biden said at the start of their joint news conference in the White House East Room.
'Fear, despair and suffering'
The flooding has caused a day in Germany “characterized by fear, despair and suffering, and hundreds of thousands of people suddenly facing catastrophe — their houses literally death traps,” Merkel said.
Merkel’s agenda Thursday also included a dinner at the White House hosted by the president and first lady Jill Biden.
Earlier in the day, the German chancellor spoke at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University after receiving an honorary degree there. She started the day with a breakfast hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris.
This was likely Merkel’s last official visit to the White House, as after 16 years as chancellor, she plans to leave the government following national elections in September.
During her tenure, Merkel visited the United States at least 19 times, including 11 visits to the White House spanning four presidencies, according to Office of the Historian at the Department of State.
“She knows the Oval Office as well as I do,” Biden joked Thursday when he praised Merkel’s time in office.
Following visits from leaders of Japan, South Korea, Israel and Afghanistan, Merkel was the fifth foreign official and the first European leader to visit the White House since Biden’s inauguration.
Differences with Trump
Merkel had a difficult relationship with former President Donald Trump, with significant differences on such issues as the NATO collective security pact, immigration policies and climate change.
A reporter asked the German leader during Thursday’s news conference to contrast Biden with Trump.
Merkel replied that any German chancellor has a vested interest “to work and talk together with any American president” and that the discussion with Biden “was a very friendly exchange.”
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara at the White House contributed to this report.