WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump plans to quiz German Chancellor Angela Merkel about her experience dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the chancellor visits the White House later this week.
The meeting, originally scheduled for Tuesday, will instead by held on Friday due to a snowstorm hitting the region starting Monday night.
A senior administration official said Friday Trump would be “very interested to get German Chancellor Merkel’s insights” as he prepares to engage the Kremlin leader.
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been suspicious of what they see as Trump’s naivete when it comes to Putin, particularly with regard to the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.
But four officials briefing reporters in advance of the March 17 meeting suggested the president wants to look past his highly publicized differences with the German leader and form strong common positions on issues ranging from trade to Kremlin cyberwarfare to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump accused Merkel of “ruining Germany” with policies that welcomed large numbers of refugees.
The chancellor, who was known to have had a strong bond with former President Barack Obama, has faulted Trump’s temporary travel ban, saying “there is no justification for placing people from a certain origin or belief under general suspicion.”
Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says Merkel is coming to the White House concerned that Trump “might get too soft with Russia and will undermine the sanctions regime she put together after the invasion of Ukraine.”
In a VOA interview, he said “the worst thing for Western solidarity would be for the major player in the West, the United States, to loosen sanctions without any progress in Ukraine.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer attempted Friday to ease those concerns, telling reporters “any attempt to undermine sanctions that exist because of the annexation of Crimea” would not be allowed until the issue is resolved. But when asked what the president’s strategy might be, he hedged.
“The president has made clear,” Spicer said, “his philosophy is not one that says ‘I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do.’ He holds his cards close to his vest to maximize his negotiating strategy.”
Szabo said if Trump wants to get a clear understanding of Vladimir Putin, he could hardly find a better source than Merkel.
“She certainly knows Putin better than anybody,” he said. “They have met or spoken by phone more than 100 times.”
Trade with Europe
The senior administration officials who briefed reporters Friday said the White House has “not formulated a final position” on whether to pursue the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the European Union. Merkel has been a strong advocate of the trade treaty known as T-TIP, and had issued a joint appeal with Obama to save it shortly before he left office.
Candidate Trump, however, had pledged to pursue only bilateral trade pacts, leading to speculation the transatlantic deal was dead. But in a hint at a possible compromise, one senior administration official Friday said T-TIP could be considered a one-on-one trade deal, given how the EU structure interconnects European economies.
Merkel signaled her top priority for the trip to the U.S. by announcing she would be accompanied by the heads of two of Germany’s biggest businesses, Siemens and BMW.
“The Germans are worried,” Szabo said. “Trump’s trade negotiator (Peter) Navarro has been singling out Germany as the biggest U.S. trade problem, bigger even than China.” Navarro heads the newly formed White House National Trade Council.
Szabo says Merkel is going to make the point that “German firms are big investors in the U.S., creating more than 600,000 American jobs in American-German companies. So she’s going to make the case that if you go after us, you’re going to be hurting jobs in the U.S.”
White House spokesman Spicer indicated the Merkel visit is likely to be one of the biggest events of the Trump presidency so far.
“There’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the ocean for this trip. We are looking forward to meeting the chancellor and her team,” he said.