Did Trump Really 'Charm' Merkel?

Acting Director of National Intelligence and Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell prompted derision on social media on Wednesday night, telling Repubican National Convention viewers that he had seen President Donald Trump "charm" German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Many users posted images and videos showing awkward interactions between the two leaders, which speak to the frosty relationship between them during Trump's time in office.

Germany has been a favored target of the Trump administration, with the president repeatedly accusing Berlin of free-riding on American security protection, engaging in questionable trade practices, and risking continental security through a huge gas pipeline deal with Russia.

"As U.S. ambassador to Germany, I had a front row seat to Donald Trump's America First foreign policy," Grenell told RNC viewers in his Wednesday address. "I wish every American could see how President Trump negotiates on their behalf."

"I've watched President Trump charm the Chancellor of Germany, while insisting that Germany pay its NATO obligations," he said, touching on one of Trump's most pressing grievances with America's European allies.

The president has regularly maligned traditional American allies, especially those NATO members who have not yet met their commitment to spending 2 percent of GDP on their militaries. The threshold was agreed at the NATO summit in the U.K. in 2014, and members have until 2024 to reach the target.

Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed that Germany owes the U.S. money for failing to live up to its spending commitments. The president reportedly handed Merkel a fake bill for the gap between expected and actual German military spending when they met in 2017.

Trump also announced in July he was withdrawing 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, accusing Berlin of being "very delinquent." He added, "Germany is a wealthy country, and they have to pay."

He again incorrectly claimed Germany "owed us billions of dollars, billions of dollars to NATO. They should be paying their bills. Why should we defend countries and not be reimbursed?"

Trump is deeply unpopular across Europe, including in Germany. A Pew Research poll published in January showed that only 13 percent of German respondents have confidence in Trump "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."

Any suggestion that Trump charmed Merkel or won over the Germans "is absurd," Hans Kundnani of the British Chatham House think tank told Newsweek. "He's hated fairly universally."

Few will take Grenell's remark at face value, but his comments and Trump's record on Germany speak to historic disputes between Washington, D.C. and Berlin that pre-date and will likely outlast Trump.

Germany has consistently failed to meet its NATO spending target and remains hesitant to deploy its military abroad. This has caused bipartisan frustration in Washington, given Germany's central role in NATO, the European Union, plus the country's wealth and economic clout.

And even under the Obama administration, the U.S. had grievances with Germany's trade practices. In 2016, the U.S. put Germany on a watch list of countries with large American trade surpluses alongside China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

Germany sees itself as a "force for peace" and an "export nation," Kundnani wrote in a 2017 paper for the Transatlantic Academy—two pillars of national identity that bump up against American interests.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has promised to reclaim America's position as a global leader if he wins the November election. The former vice president has placed diplomacy and multilateralism at the heart of his foreign policy platform, eschewing Trump's unilateral "America First" mantra.

But in office, Biden will have to do more than criticize Trumpian policy. The long-standing issues in U.S.-German relations will remain. The Obama administration tried to encourage the Germans to address these problems but met with limited success. Trump has chosen a more aggressive approach with similar results.

"There are some very justified American criticisms of Germany that predate Trump, which because of this spat between Merkel and Trump everyone now seems to have forgotten about," Kundnani explained.

"One of the things that Grenell and Trump have done has been to really push hard on those issues, with some justification."

Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, charm, Richard Grenell
This file photo shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump during the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 24, 2019 in New York City. Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images/Getty