It was a moment Germans might call a Katastrophe.
No translation needed.
At what was supposed to be a simple breakfast meeting, U.S. President Donald Trump kicked off this week’s annual NATO summit with a televised tirade belittling Germany as “captive to Russia” over its energy policy and sneering at the country’s military spending levels.
Even by Trump’s standards, his broadsides against one of America’s key military and economic partners was startling, and it renewed alarms about his commitment to a close alliance with Europe as a whole. But it was also just the latest evidence of Trump’s seeming fixation with Europe’s largest power, a longtime U.S. ally he has denounced with increasing frequency.
In recent months, Trump has complained that he sees too many German cars on American streets. He has falsely charged that crime is spiking in the country. He has reportedly complained about the size of America’s decades-long troop presence in the country. And as German Chancellor Angela Merkel battles a political crisis over immigration, he seemed to take pleasure in seeing “the people of Germany … turning against their leadership.”
All of which has left observers on both sides of the Atlantic wondering, “Why Germany?”
“I wish we knew,” said Julie Smith, who advised former Vice President Joe Biden on foreign policy. “Germany, hands down, gets more attacks than any other European ally. For one reason or another, the hits keep on coming.”
Theories abound about the reason for Trump’s German fixation — all the more surprising given his own German ancestry — and there may be no single answer. They range from Trump’s seeming belief that Germany has grown wealthy by mooching from the U.S. to the notion that he resents strong women like Merkel, who also happened to be one of President Barack Obama’s closest allies.
Trump supporters say the concern is overblown, and that the Republican president is just giving Germany a healthy dose of “tough love” to make it more resilient against threats from countries like Russia.
Whatever the impetus, Trump’s swipes at Berlin are further straining ties between the Trump administration and Europe—to the certain delight of Moscow, which has long sought to divide the United States and Europe.
Some analysts say Trump views Germany as having exploited the benefits of its longtime alliance with the U.S. and its key role in Europe’s economic union.
As Trump signaled Wednesday, he’s particularly annoyed that Germany, a wealthy nation with a robust economy, is not among the handful of countries in NATO who spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a threshold long agreed to by members of the military alliance.
Trump also frequently complains that Germany has a trade deficit in goods with the U.S. of roughly $65 billion. And he has ripped Merkel for maintaining one of Europe’s most welcoming policies towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted on June 18. “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”
On Wednesday, Trump surprised fellow world leaders in Brussels by tearing into Germany’s pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 project, a planned pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would bring Russian natural gas to Germany.
On each of Trump’s complaints, the Germans counter that Trump’s facts are mistaken or exaggerated. In many cases, experts agree.
On NATO spending, Germany has committed to reaching the 2 percent threshold by 2024, and remains a steadfast military partner of the United States. Thousands of U.S. troops have been based in Germany in the wake of World War II, and Germans have played a significant role in NATO’s post-2001 mission in Afghanistan.
Economists also caution against putting too much meaning on the goods-related trade deficit, saying that it’s just one aspect of a critical trade relationship with a major European economic engine.
On crime and immigration, meanwhile, statistics show that crime is at a 25-year-low in Germany, despite the influx of migrants.
The Obama administration also criticized Nord Stream 2, but the Trump team has been especially vociferous, reportedly threatening to tie Germany’s moves on the initiative to future trade deals and tariffs involving the United States.
The Germans counter that American officials’ true motive is to get Berlin to rely more on U.S. energy exports.
The timing of Trump’s outburst— sitting across a table from a surprised-looking NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg—was especially alarming to many observers because Trump is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday amid concern that he is too close to the autocratic Russian leader.
Trump suggested that the Nord Stream 2 project will mean that Germany is paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Russia, “the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”
“Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia, because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” he said. “So we’re supposed to protect Germany, but they’re getting their energy from Russia.”
“President Trump’s brazen insults and denigration of one of America’s most steadfast allies, Germany, is an embarrassment,” Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Nancy Pelosi of California said in a joint statement. “His behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the President is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies.”
Trump’s language also drew a strong retort from Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and noted that she’d “experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union.”
Merkel and Trump tried to make nice later in the day when they met on the sidelines of the summit. Trump insisted the pair had a “very, very good relationship” while Merkel said “we are good partners.”
James Carafano, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted that some countries in Eastern and Central Europe resent Germany’s influence on the continent and may take pleasure in Trump’s approach to Berlin. “People say ‘Why is he making so many enemies in Europe?’ but I say, ‘He might be making a lot of friends in Europe,'” Carafano said, mentioning Poland as one example.
That’s little consolation to Merkel, who has recently struggled to maintain power in the face of an insurgent populist right furious over her immigration policies.
Some observers say Trump almost seems determined to drive Merkel from office, although his constant attacks might also be rallying Germans to Merkel’s defense.
In any case, it’s impossible to mask the growing divide, one that Merkel herself may signaled days after the 2016 election with a pointed statement promising to work with Trump on the basis of “common values,” including “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color.”
One theory about why Trump is willing to knife Merkel is linked to the fact that the German chancellor was one of Obama’s favorite foreign leaders.
“Trump has made clear his distaste for anything that Obama did, and one of the things he did was he worked very closely with Angela Merkel,” Smith said. “Perhaps part of Merkel’s problem with Trump is that he associates her with his predecessor.”
Smith also touched on a more sensitive theory: “Maybe there’s some issue with her as a strong female leader. We don’t know.”
Carafano argued that Merkel’s real problem is a failure to engage and flatter Trump as have other foreign leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“He and Merkel have never had a comfortable relationship,” Carafano said. “She has had a typical European attitude of lecturing” that offends Trump. “I’ve always gotten the sense that she really hasn’t engaged him as an equal. I think he responded negatively to that,” he added.
But Carafano acknowledged that even a Merkel charm offensive might not change Trump’s mind on policy issues. Abe and Macron have had little success on issues ranging from tariffs to the Iran nuclear deal.
Some Trump supporters issued statements applauding his heavy hand Wednesday. Frank Gaffney, head of the right-wing Center for Security Policy described it as “tough love” designed to jump-start lethargic NATO members on defense spending and other issues.
But Germany, and many of America’s other allies in Europe, could draw a different lesson.
In May of 2017, after an encounter with Trump, Merkel told a crowd that, “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.”
After Wednesday’s Trump performance, that realization is probably more crystal clear than ever, said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund.
“Berlin is realizing that we have to think about how Germany gets on with its future without the United States as a strong partner for the remainder of the Trump presidency,” said David-Wilp, who is based in Berlin. “And there’s no guarantee that a post-Trump America will also bounce back to be the partner that Germany once knew.”
Matthew Karnitschnig contributed to this report.