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Merkel's Low-Key Visit With Trump Focuses On Trade, Foreign Policy

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on Friday.

Updated at 5:19 p.m. ET

President Trump expressed optimism for upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying of a potential agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula "I hope I'm able to do [it] for the world."

Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House Friday, Trump said he thinks "some very good things can happen." He refused to say whether he has spoken with Kim but that "we have a very good working relationship," and added that the two sides have narrowed down the list of possible meeting sites to two.

Answering questions the afternoon after a summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in which the two leaders vowed to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, Trump said things "have changed very radically from a few months ago, you know the name-calling and a lot of other things." He said that "I think that something very dramatic could happen."

Speaking through an interpreter at the news conference, Merkel said "the strength" of Trump enforcing sanctions on North Korea "opened new possibilities" for an agreement with Pyongyang.

Merkel noted she and Trump "had an exchange of views," on the thorny subject of trade. The U.S. is set to impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from the European Union beginning May 1.

Merkel said "the decision lies with the president," as to whether to grant the EU an exemption from those tariffs but she noted Germany has been working to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S., but "we still have a long way to go."

The Germans "are worried that a dispute between the European Union and United States on trade and tariffs could spiral ... to include autos, and there the Germans have a lot more to lose than the French," said Peter Rough, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

In fact, Merkel said several German car manufacturers have built plants in the U.S. from which they export cars around the world. She also said that since passing a corporate tax cut, the U.S. "has become a very interesting place to invest" for German companies, and that she could envision bilateral trade talks with the U.S., separate from the EU.

In contrast to his upbeat statements on North Korea, Trump sounded more bellicose when the questioning turned to Iran. Trump is threatening to abandon a multilateral agreement with Iran that has halted its development of a nuclear weapon. Even if the U.S. pulls out of the accord, Trump said the Tehran government "is not going to be doing nuclear weapons, you can bank on it."

Merkel said that while the agreement "is anything from perfect," it was one piece of the mosaic, one building block ... on which we can build up this structure." Merkel said she told the president that the whole of the region is of prime importance to Germany, because Iran and Syria were countries "right on our doorstep."

Merkel's visit did not include much of the fanfare that accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron's trip to Washington, D.C., earlier this week.

While there was no fancy state dinner, Merkel echoed many of the concerns that were raised by Macron about U.S. positions on trade and foreign policy during her Oval Office meeting and working lunch with Trump.

Merkel said Germany was now spending 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense, short of the 2 percent target set by NATO, and less than Trump wants. She noted that the U.S. and Europe were not anxious for Germany to rebuild its military strength after WWII, because of "the incredible injustices" created by the Nazis. She said that the post-war period has long since come to an end and "we as Germans have to learn to assume more responsibility."

Trump again defended Dr. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician as head of the White House medical unit and a Navy rear admiral who Trump had nominated to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson withdrew his nomination Thursday, after allegations that he drank while on duty, created a hostile work environment and had engaged in questionable practices for prescribing painkillers and other controlled substances. Jackson has denied the allegations — allegations which have not been independently verified — and remains in his post at the White House.

Trump said he called Jackson Friday, and told him "You're an American hero." What happened to him was "an absolute disgrace," the president added.

Trump said he hadn't decided on a new nominee to lead the VA but that "many people" wanted the job.

Merkel and Trump do not have the close personal bond that Trump shares with Macron. One reason for the frosty relations is Germany's larger trade deficit with the United States. Trump has made clear he considers such deficits a loss for the United States.

But analysts say Merkel's ability to charm Trump should not be underestimated.

"She's a cool and rational person, and has a wicked sense of humor," said Constanze Stelzenmuller, of the Brookings Institution. "She does have this natural warmth and she does display that in private conversation. For all we know, she might be able to win him over."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.