Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET
At a wide-ranging and occasionally tense news conference after their first in-person meeting Friday, President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed trade and border policy — and had one notable exchange when Trump was asked about his unproven claims that former President Obama tapped the phones at Trump Tower last year.
Trump declined the opportunity to retract the claim, telling the media that “we said nothing” when he tweeted, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process,” and that he was merely quoting a “very talented legal mind” he had seen on Fox News.
“You should be talking to Fox,” Trump said.
After the conference, Fox’s Shepard Smith responded: “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary,” apparently referring to the report Trump cited.
But first, when addressing the question about wiretapping from a German reporter, Trump told Merkel: “At least we have something in common, perhaps” — making an implied reference to the 2013 revelations that the National Security Administration had spied on European leaders, including Merkel.
Merkel did not reply.
The moment punctuated remarks that focused predominantly on trade and training the countries’ workers for manufacturing in the 21st century. In his statement at the start, Trump praised Germany’s apprenticeship program that trains people to join the industrial workforce.
He also took a moment to thank Merkel for Germany’s continued support of the war effort in Afghanistan and for its role as a “counter-ISIS coalition member.”
Still, while Trump said he reiterated to Merkel his strong support for NATO, he was also careful to emphasize that NATO allies need to “pay their fair share for the cost of defense.” It’s a point he has repeated often, maintaining a skeptical view of the defensive alliance — a position that has made Germany and other European countries wary.
“Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States,” Trump continued. “These nations must pay what they owe.”
Toward that end, both leaders said that Germany is committed to increasing its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP — a goal already established for NATO members by the treaty’s terms.
Merkel, for her part, focused on business from the outset as a centerpiece of her visit. Indeed she embarked on her trans-Atlantic trip with some notable companions: top executives at BMW, Siemens and the industrial parts manufacturer Schaeffler.
Her high-placed company sent as good a message as any about the direction Merkel expected these introductory talks to take.
“She wants to make the point that the companies have created thousands of jobs in the United States,” Tanit Koch, the editor of the German newspaper Bild, tells NPR’s Rachel Martin.
Citing Merkel’s interview with another German paper, Saarbruecker Zeitung, the BBC says the chancellor planned to remind Trump that BMW’s plant in South Carolina exported “more cars than GM and Ford together” from America.
“I’ll make that clear,” Merkel added.
And unavoidably with business comes the question of trade. At the news conference, Merkel praised international trade agreements, saying they work best when they work as a win-win for the parties involved.
“The English word she puts a lot of emphasis on right now is the word ‘reciprocity,’ ” Koch says.
Yet the German publication Deutsche Welle points out that “the bar of what to expect from their first meeting [is] rather low, especially given the prior verbal tiffs between them and their different domestic audiences.”
And those “prior verbal tiffs” are not insignificant.
Both as a candidate and as president-elect, Trump had some harsh words for the German leader, saying she was “ruining Germany” and had “made a catastrophic mistake” in welcoming more than 1 million migrants and refugees in recent years.
The stark difference between their immigration policies surfaced again occasionally in the course of their news conference — with Trump pointedly asserting that “immigration is a privilege, not a right.”
In turn, Merkel maintained that while efforts must be made to stop illegal trafficking, such efforts have “to be done by looking at the refugees as well, giving them opportunities to shape their own lives. … Help countries who right now are not [able] to do so.”
On the campaign trail, Trump stressed this difference in beliefs in harsh terms, once saying, “The German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman. I don’t know what the hell she’s thinking.”
And shortly after Trump’s election, Merkel offered a rebuttal of her own in a tepid note of congratulations, taking the opportunity to state:
“Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close co-operation.”
The tensions have made for a tenuous balance for both leaders — perhaps more so for the German chancellor, who faces a tough national election of her own in September.
“What we know from the polls — as much as we can trust them nowadays — is that you have 80 to 90 percent of Germans saying they pretty much abhor what [Trump is] doing,” Koch tells NPR.
But Merkel can’t fully separate herself from the U.S. president. Quite the opposite, in fact: Hopes remain that the meeting, if nothing else, might help reset the relationship between the two leaders.
Or as Merkel told Saarbruecker Zeitung: “It’s always better to talk with each other than about each other.”
They are likely to have at least one more opportunity to talk with each other after this visit. Trump has accepted Merkel’s invitation to the G-20 Summit, which will be held in Germany this summer.