Trump, the man of heated words loses steam in front of Putin and Merkel
President Donald Trump’s calculated words with two major players--Russia and Germany--reveal a level of pragmatism and diplomacy uncharacteristic of the often impulsive leader.
Where Trump’s words often take on a love-hate relationship, the president is measured in his language when dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a bid to strengthen U.S.-Russia and U.S.-German relations.
Although a recent Senate report on September 11 lambasted Trump for steering away from diplomacy, the recent show of cooperation between the world leaders and Trump highlight that the president’s complicated, but prudent demeanor has worked:
No foreign relationship is more complicated for the Trump administration than Putin and Trump themselves. In January 2017, then-President Barack Obama sanctioned four Russian individuals and five Russian entities, including its two compounds in New York and Maryland, in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Obama has always harbored the opinion that “Putin isn’t on our team.”
However, when it comes to Putin, Trump has often taken on the role of a double agent.
During his first trip to Warsaw on July 6, Trump delivered his first soft attack against Russia.
“I think it could very well have been Russia, but it could have also been other countries,” Trump said when asked for his response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
But a day later, Trump retracted his statement during his mammoth two and a half hour meeting at the G20 summit with Putin, stressing that the accusations were a “substantial hindrance” to U.S.-Russia relations. Trump was attending the summit with over 20 major players from Canada, France, Germany, U.K., Australia and South Korea in Hamburg to discuss free trade, climate change and Africa.
The president, then, fueled rumors of a disturbing allegiance to Russia 10 days after the summit with the White House’s confirmation that Trump had held an undisclosed second meeting with Putin during a social couples-dinner at the summit. Trump lashed out at the way the media used the word “undisclosed,” tweeting that all the G20 leaders were invited by Merkel for the dinner and that the press “was aware.” Putin, the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t comment on the meeting, as the White House scrambled to prove it meant nothing.
However, Trump further stoked suspicions of his favoritism toward Putin when he slammed Congress’ Russia sanctions bill on August 2 as “clearly unconstitutional.” The bill prevented Trump from lifting or waiving sanctions against Russia. What is notable in Trump’s reactions to this sanctions bill is his determination to steer himself from any form of Putin criticism. Following his campaign win, Trump associated positive words like “asset” and “respect” to Putin -- a stark contrast to his “fire and fury” comments at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and “Hillary Clinton wants to be Angela Merkel” statement in respect to the German leader.
Putin handed Trump an opportunity to deliver a firm rebuke of Russia after the Kremlin announced on July 30 that it was forcing the U.S. State Department to cut its staff numbers by 775 people by September 1 in retaliation to the sanctions. Trump went uncharacteristically quiet and took a cheekier approach in his response nearly two weeks later on August 10 at his Bedminster golf club :
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.”
Trump diverted the topic completely to payroll, as if he wanted any attention to be swept under a Russian rug -- a departure from his G20 comments where he pressured Putin to answer the election interference question.
Caption : Onlookers watch smoke billow out of the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco on September 1. (AP)
What followed Trump’s August 10 comments was the State Department’s announcement on August 31 that it would close three Russian diplomatic properties in the U.S. in a tit-for-tat display of power, countering Putin’s cuts to U.S. embassy staff based in Russia. Trump refrained from directly commenting on the State Department’s actions on Twitter, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later confirmed that the closures were the president’s decision.
Trump’s lack of words but move to action here hints at his attempt to mimic Putin’s style of delivering counterattacks.
While Trump’s silence could be perceived as a sign of weakness, The Atlantic’s David A. Graham writes that the State Department’s actions “offers Trump a good chance to stand up for his country” by demonstrating his strength in sticking to his opinion, and letting the department carry out these closures.
Graham’s observation corresponds to Putin’s own response to an interviewer’s question on September 5. Asked whether he’s disappointed over the Trump presidency, the Russian president said, “He’s not my bride. I am also not his bride nor groom.” Putin’s answer shows he’s trying to separate himself from Trump and bolster both leaders’ individual authority, but also bind them together in a marriage reference. The Trump-Putin relationship has a weariness in displaying camaraderie in the current stormy U.S.-Russia backdrop.
In her memoir What Happened, Hillary Clinton offered the opinion that Trump didn’t just like Putin. “He seems to want to be like Putin, a white authoritarian leader who could put down dissenters...He dreams of Moscow on the Potomac.” Clinton’s opinion is harsh but not far-off.
Trump has either praised Putin or remained silent, and the Russian president has extended multiple olive branches to Trump from refusing to comment on the Trump election investigation to agreeing to a ceasefire on Syria. There’s a joint sense of respect here that acts as the foundation for diplomacy.
While Trump avoids criticizing Putin, the president has poked holes in his relationship with Merkel.
During his campaign, Trump oscillated between complimenting and criticizing Merkel. He praised the German leader for being “well-respected”, but described her admittance of over 1.17 million refugees into Germany during the 2015-2016 Syrian refugee crisis as “insane.” Merkel never responded with a statement.
However, the chancellor pulled the rug under Trump twice in November, first with her congratulatory remarks to the new president on November 9 and secondly during Obama’s farewell European tour on November 18.
Merkel stressed in her first letter to Trump as president that both nations were united by common values such as “democracy, freedom...respect for the rule of law…” and that she would offer cooperation “under these values.”
The chancellor also responded to Trump’s accusatory remarks of Germany not spending enough money on NATO, saying “in the long term, the imbalance over defense spending cannot be maintained, and Germany has...already begun to react.” The U.S. government demands defense spending by NATO member countries hit 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) but Germany has only hit 1.2% of its GDP.
During these comments, Merkel strayed from naming Trump, and credited Obama with her decision to increase Germany’s spending on NATO instead. It was an act of disregard for the new president.
Actions speak louder than words, and Trump demonstrated his confusion over how to handle Merkel on March 17 at the White House.
After their first White House meeting, Trump was forced to address why he didn’t shake Merkel’s hand, even when she gently offered. The president accused the media of being too noisy for him to have heard her question, and said, “Yeah it’s funny, one of the best chemistries I’ve had was with Merkel,” reaffirming their strong relationship.
In a rare moment, Trump’s response to meeting Merkel was identical to the ones he had in being “honored” to meet Putin.
As NBC correspondent Katy Tur points out in her Trump memoir, Unbelievable, Trump can’t bear looking weak and is so enamored with Putin’s “old-fashioned leadership” of not caring, that he tries to portray a lack of intimidation as well. As Merkel shredded Trump during the White House meeting with a more assertive stance, “It’s much better to talk to one another, than about one another,” there was a flicker of recognition within Trump that Merkel was as powerful and as assertive as Putin.
And Merkel proved to Trump the lengths she would go to showcase her power in Europe at a beer festival, two days after the controversial May 26 Trump NATO meeting. Trump called the Germans “bad, very bad” in the meeting with EU leaders and accused them of selling millions of cars to the U.S.
Merkel stressed on May 28, two days past the NATO meeting that the days of reliance on the U.S. were “somewhat over” and said Germans “must take their fate into their own hands.” The comments knocked many Germans over, since Merkel had stayed away from sharp criticism against Trump. Der Spiegel reported that politicians who had critiqued Merkel in the past for not slamming Trump, such as Merkel’s rival Martin Schulz, rallied behind her, and Merkel quickly found herself in the position of Europe’s defender against Trump.
However, Trump assumed a completely new position on Merkel between the NATO meeting on May 26 and the G20 summit on July 7-8. The president, who described the Germans as “very bad” in the NATO meeting, called Merkel “amazing” for leading the summit. But, Merkel didn’t offer the same thanks back, saying she “deplored” Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Climate Accord in June instead.
Yet, the quintessential moment of diplomacy between the two leaders came when Merkel defended first daughter Ivanka Trump’s brief sit-in at a G20 summit meeting for Trump. Ivanka sat in for her father during discussions on the World Bank initiative for female entrepreneurs, and drew the ire of social media.
Merkel took to Ivanka’s defense, responding “Ivanka Trump was part and parcel of the American delegation.” Trump followed suit, tweeting out that it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place and that even “Angela M agrees!”
Trump’s dependence on Merkel’s words and Merkel’s defense of Trump’s daughter signal the achievement of a stalemate between the leaders. And the stalemate is prevalent in Merkel’s avoidance of Trump criticism since August.
Merkel has been actively defending her decision to cooperate with Trump as she campaigned during the German national elections. “In the end, he won the election under American electoral law...that this person should be shown the appropriate respect, regardless of how I assess his views," Merkel said on August 23.
The chancellor acknowledged that she and Trump still “have serious differences” during the September 3 televised debate with her opponent Schulz, but warned the world needed the U.S. to tackle its Afghanistan, North Korea and climate change issues.
Does this mean Merkel and Trump have abandoned their differences in pursuit of cooperation? Not entirely.
In recent campaign posters on September 12 by Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Party, Merkel uses an image of Obama with the words, “When I can, I choose Obama” against the German flag’s red, black and gold color scheme to promote herself. The preference towards Obama indicates that not all the tensions between Trump and Merkel may have been laid to rest, and that Merkel is indirectly displaying favoritism for the former American leader.
Merkel and Trump possess equally fiery demeanors and are determined to position themselves as strong leaders. In the current anxiety over North Korea, Trump and Merkel remain united. But it remains to be seen if the unity still holds up in a less turbulent environment.