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Kombobild Merkel Trump 2016 (picture alliance )

What Trump said about Merkel – and vice versa

Michael Knigge
March 13, 2017

US President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel have never met. When they do for the first time they face the awkward task of having to overcome a barrage of unusually harsh criticism Trump levelled against his guest.


When German and American political leaders strongly disagree about a crucial issue in public it normally sounds something like this.

"This country under my leadership is not available for adventure," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said at a campaign event of his Social Democratic Party in the summer of 2002. He was of course referring to the potential US invasion of Iraq which ultimately began under President George W. Bush in 2003. Schroeder's public rebuke is said to not only have seriously irked Bush, but also to have damaged their personal relationship beyond repair. 

Read: Trump and Merkel to talk NATO, Ukraine and climate change

"I am not convinced”, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer famously told US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Munich Security Conference in February 2003, one month before the American invasion of Iraq would begin.

What Americans think about Merkel

Fischer openly rebuking the case for war made by Rumsfeld in front of a slew of global luminaries was highly unusual in the context of the traditionally close and – at least publicly – harmonious relationship between leaders of both countries. 

Libya, Cuba and Germany

"I believe Libya, Cuba and Germany are ones that have indicated they won't help in any respect," Pentagon chief Rumsfeld, also not once to mince words, said about Germany in February 2003, incensing Berlin by likening the country's stance vis-a-vis the Iraq invasion to that of two nations traditionally hostile towards the US.     

Against that historical backdrop the number and ferocity of Donald Trump's unprovoked verbal attacks during the presidential campaign against Chancellor Merkel were truly unprecedented.

"I always thought Merkel was, like, this great leader," he said in an interview in October 2015 about her decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country. "What she's done in Germany is insane," he added and predicted: "They're going to have riots in Germany."

Ruining Germany

Two months later, after Time magazine made Merkel its person of the year Trump took to Twitter to declare, that the outlet picked the person "who is ruining Germany".

In March 2016, referring to the Cologne New Year's Eve assaultson hundreds of women, Trump during a rally in Iowa again predicted unrest in Germany and lashed out against Merkel. "The German people are going to riot. The German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman [Angela Merkel]. I don't know what the hell she is thinking."

In June last year during remarks about Brexit, Trump mused about Germans emigrating: "These are people that were very proud Germans that were beyond belief, they thought the greatest that there ever was and now they're talking about leaving Germany."

But then in September 2016 after having repeatedly savaged Merkel for months, Trump suddenly heaped praise on the chancellor, albeit with some key qualifiers.

A Merkel person

"Well, I think Merkel is a really great world leader," he said in an interview. "But I was very disappointed that, when she, this move with the whole thing on immigration, I think it's a big problem and really, you know, to look at what she's done in the last year and a half. I was always a Merkel person. I thought really fantastic. But I think she made a very tragic mistake a year and a half ago."

Unlike, some of her cabinet members, Merkel kept her cool and did not directly counter Trump's criticism during the presidential election campaign.

Instead, Merkel waited until after his election to deliver a message to the new president.

Deutschland Reaktion US-Wahl - Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel
Chancellor Merkel had a noteworthy congratulatory message for President-elect TrumpImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Public lecture

In a remarkable statement from the chancellery congratulating him on his victory she went on to offer Trump close cooperation based on shared values which she then explicitly listed one by one: "democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position". 

Merkel's statement on Trump's travel ban

While this may seem tame in comparison to Trump's attacks on her, for a German Chancellor to not just offer cooperation under specified terms to a US president, but to do it in way that could be perceived as lecturing him on Western values, was as stark a rebuke of an incoming US president as could be expected of Merkel or any German chancellor.

No screaming

And Merkel did not stop there, but since also came out strongly against President Trump's travel ban against several predominantly Muslim nations. "The necessary and decisive battle against terrorism does not in any way justify putting groups of certain people under general suspicion, in this case people of Muslim belief or of a certain origin," she said in January in Berlin.

Keeping their prior rhetorical struggle in mind, it seems fair to describe the first Trump-Merkel meeting as potentially loaded. It also makes clear why an experienced US foreign policy analyst was only half-joking when he recently commented that he considered it already a success if Trump behaved himself and the get-together ended without screaming.          

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