A couple of months ago, at a White House press conference alongside Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Donald Trump whined at some length about U.S. trade deals with Germany. “Right now, I would say that the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States,” the American president complained. “But hopefully we can even it out.”
Despite focusing on trade policy for two years, Trump apparently did not realize that Germany, as an EU member, does not make individual trade deals with the United States. He also didn’t brush up on this fairly obvious fact before welcoming the German leader to the White House.
A month later, a senior German official told The Times of London that Trump asked Merkel 10 times about negotiating a trade deal. According to the official, she replied every time, “You can’t do a trade deal with Germany, only the EU.” The official added, “On the eleventh refusal, Trump finally got the message.”
I’m not at all sure that’s true. Consider this Slate report from yesterday:
Donald Trump had some tough words for the Germans at the NATO summit in Belgium on Thursday. “The Germans are bad, very bad,” he reportedly told Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Union. “Look at the millions of cars that they’re selling in the USA. Horrible. We’re gonna stop that.”
It is certainly true that Germany runs a big trade surplus with the world and with the United States…. But Trump can’t stop the German cars from coming in to the U.S. because, to a large degree, they’re already here…. Trump could try to stop the sales of German cars in the U.S. But that would involve shutting down a bunch of factories on American soil that employ American workers and use a lot of U.S.-produced parts. Yes, that would be bad – very bad.
Yesterday was not a successful day for the amateur president. European leaders went out of their way to try to accommodate Trump and his, shall we say, unique qualities, but he managed to alienate many of America’s closest allies anyway. There was the cringe-worthy shove of Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic. There was the equally embarrassing handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron. There was the speech in which Trump chose not to explicitly endorse his commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty, despite expectations.
But in the end, what struck me as the most significant development was Trump’s brazen ignorance.
Trump still doesn’t know how NATO works. Member nations are expected to devote a portion of their annual budgets to defense spending – plenty of previous American presidents have also urged NATO allies to increase their investments – but for countries that haven’t reached their threshold, the target dates don’t arrive until 2024.
Even putting this aside, it’s not as if member nations receive a bill every year from Washington, D.C. For Trump to say our allies “owe massive amounts of money” is plainly absurd.