In the end, Angela Merkel couldn’t hide it. Seated next to Ivanka Trump at a White House meeting with business leaders on Friday, the German leader tilted her head in the first daughter’s direction as Ivanka spoke, a look of bewilderment tinged with disdain enveloping her face.
“Why are you here,” Merkel, never a good pretender, seemed to be thinking.
On a day filled with awkward moments, probably none was more cringe-worthy to German eyes than the picture of the president’s glamorous daughter, prim as an American Girl doll, perched next to no-nonsense Merkel as she praised her father’s commitment to job creation. “Ingenuity, creativity often comes from the determination of the private sector,” Ivanka, who hawks handbags and jewelry over the Internet, told the meeting of blue-chip CEOs.
Whatever her true feelings, the world’s most powerful woman, relegated to a prop for Ivanka’s Twitter feed, did her best to play along. Too much was at stake.
In the run-up to the Merkel-Trump meeting, some observers predicted the issues that divide them — immigration, the president’s plans to build a wall along the Mexican border and free trade — could derail the visit.
Yet Merkel’s main aim on the trip was to prove to Donald Trump that Germany was a friend, not a foe. She resolved to avoid contentious topics to the degree possible and focus on the bonds that have held the transatlantic alliance together for decades.
To that end, Merkel brought along CEOs from some of Germany’s biggest companies, including BMW and Siemens, to intone their continued commitment to U.S.-based production. She repeated Berlin’s promise to spend more on its defense and thanked the U.S. for the central role it played in reinventing Germany after the war.
The strategy appears to have succeeded. Trump praised Germany’s vocational training system as a model for the U.S. Though he stopped short of calling for even closer business ties, something German industry had been hoping for, Trump stressed the importance of strong trade between the two countries, as long as it was “fair.”
“We don’t want victory, we want fairness,” he said.
While he didn’t endorse the European Union, as Merkel had hoped, he reiterated his “strong support” for NATO, with the usual caveats that alliance members “pay their fair share.”
All in all, it was the best Merkel probably could have hoped for.
Given Trump’s repeated and harsh insults of Merkel and her refugee stance during the campaign and afterwards, a warm embrace would have been both unrealistic and unconvincing. Most of this disharmony was non-verbal. Merkel shot Trump a skeptical glance during the press conference, for example, when he quipped that both of them appeared to have been wiretapped by the Obama administration. Trump either didn’t hear or ignored her when she suggested they shake hands in front of reporters (they had shaken hands at other times on Friday).
Germans don’t like Trump. Nearly 70 percent do not think it’s good that he became president. So for Merkel, who faces a tough reelection fight this year, cozying up to him was never her intention. A polite Teutonic distance is what the home crowd wanted to see. And that’s exactly what they got.
‘Cautiously friendly beginning’
Optics aside, the most notable aspect of the meeting was that it was fairly mundane.
“Nothing about it was sensational or out of the ordinary,” conservative German daily Die Welt concluded. “But in the anything-but-normal Trump era, normality itself can be a sensation.”
The overall tenor in the German press was that while the first Merkel-Trump meeting was far from relaxed, it wasn’t as bad as some feared. The liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung described the encounter as “a cautiously friendly beginning.”
Trump and Merkel will never be bosom buddies. What Merkel is counting on is a productive relationship.
However unsavory she and her countrymen may find Trump, Germany has no viable alternative to the U.S. partnership, either in economic or security terms.
If a few pained grins and a stilted photo-op of with Ivanka are the price Merkel has to pay to preserve the U.S.-German relationship, so be it.
The ceremonial Oval Office handshake notwithstanding, Merkel got what she came for.
“We had a conversation where we also tried to address areas where we disagree, but we tried to bring people together and find a compromise that is good for both sides,” Merkel said.