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Blind spots in Trump's trade tirade against Germany

German companies employ 700,000 people in the US; German carmakers have big American assembly plants

Mark Landler 

During his visit to Europe, Donald Trump had told EU officials that Germany was
During his visit to Europe, Donald Trump had told EU officials that Germany was “very bad” on trade. Photo: Reuters

The last time relations between the United States and Europe were this bad — in the spring of 2003, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq — the administration of George W Bush decided to “punish France, ignore and forgive Russia,” in a phrase attributed to the national security advisor at the time, Condoleezza Rice.
 
Now, President has flipped the formula, punishing while largely ignoring France. (His conciliatory approach to Russia seems more or less in line with the Bush of 2003.)

 
The difference this time is trade. runs a chronic, yawning trade surplus with the United States, which administration officials say has widened by exploiting a weak euro to put American exports at a disadvantage. That, more than differences over NATO, Russia or climate change, is driving a wedge between the two countries.
 
“We have a massive trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay far less than they should on NATO & military,” an angry said on Twitter on Tuesday morning. “Very bad for This will change.”
 
was continuing a drumbeat he began during his visit to Europe, when he told European Union officials that was “very bad” on trade. But the president’s campaign against Germany, while accurate on the statistics, overlooks the benefits in the German-American trade relationship, and overstates Berlin’s ability to do much about it.
 
German companies employ roughly 700,000 people in the United States. Carmakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have huge American assembly plants, which export vehicles to China and Latin America. BMW’s factory in Spartanburg, SC, is the largest single exporter, by dollar value, in the American automotive industry.
 
Trump’s latest offensive appeared to be in response to peppery remarks by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, at a political rally in Munich on Sunday, when she said Europe could no longer rely on the United States as a partner. Europeans, she said, needed to “take our fate into our own hands.”
 
France also runs a substantial trade surplus with the United States, and it, like Germany, falls short of the military spending benchmark set by NATO, though in both cases by less than Yet has spared France the kind of vitriol he has given the Germans — largely, officials say, because France spends more on its defense than
 
When he met France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, for the first time in Brussels last week, he lavished praise on him for his election victory. “All over the world they’re talking about it,” he said. White House officials said got along well with Macron in private, notwithstanding their much-photographed death grip of a handshake.
 
Officials said even told Macron he had been pulling for him in the election.
 
There is no such rapport between the flamboyant and the brainy, button-down
 
The two have a business-like relationship, officials on both sides said. But Merkel, several officials said, has concluded that there is little prospect of closing the gap with on issues like trade, Russia or the Paris climate accord, which has threatened to leave. Her defiant tone on Sunday was driven in part by the fact that she is running for re-election and that is deeply unpopular in
 
Whatever the motivation, it seemed to register with
 
“I think it just stuck in his craw,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
 
White House officials said it was the combination of Germany’s wealth and its meagre contribution to NATO that singled it out for criticism. spends only 1.2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, compared with 1.8 per cent for France. Both are below the 2 per cent threshold that NATO has set for its members.
 
Germany’s trade surplus is a ripe target for It is mammoth — $64.8 billion in 2016 — and longstanding, and there is little evidence that Germany, which regards its export machine as a source of national pride, is inclined to do much to remedy it.
 
German officials typically tell their American counterparts that the surplus reflects the competitiveness of German goods, that does not set its trade policy, and that it cannot control the value of the euro, since monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank, not Berlin.
 
is not the first American leader to be rankled by imbalances with President Barack Obama’s economic advisers, Jacob J Lew and Lawrence H. Summers, pushed German officials on these issues, with little success. But Mr. is more acutely aware of the deficit because jobs and trade are such resonant issues with his voters.
 
John C Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany, said the president’s views “seem to be a mixture of his own resentments from not being able to push his business deals through the E.U. as he wished; broad prejudices which have been building up in the American political class for some time on both NATO and trade; and the conviction of his economic advisers that the German trade balance is an evil, which causes many other problems from job losses to currency instability to loss of American exports.”

In his conversation with European Union leaders, Mr. reportedly complained about the millions of cars that sells in the United States, and threatened to stop them. Yet he has been an enthusiastic buyer of German luxury cars over the years.
 
After his Palm Beach wedding in 2005, Mr. and his bride, Melania, jumped into a Mercedes Maybach limousine. He once bought a limited-edition silver Mercedes SLR McLaren roadster, with a supercharged AMG V8 engine, for $465,000. Mrs. had her own Mercedes at the time.
 
German officials are in the meantime eager to avoid a wholesale rupture between Berlin and Washington. Ms. Merkel, they said, has spoken before of the need for Europeans to control their own fate and was still determined to develop a productive relationship with Mr.
 
“Precisely because trans-Atlantic relations are so important, it is imperative to speak honestly about the differences we have,” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to Washington, said. “Past meetings have revealed a number of such differences, for example in the area of climate change.”
 
At the White House, the message was much the same. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, said Mr. would describe his relationship with Ms. as “fairly unbelievable” — meaning, apparently, that it is unbelievably good. Mr. Spicer finished the thought by adding, “They get along very well.”
 
He said Ms. Merkel’s call for Europe to go it alone actually vindicated Mr. Trump’s demand that shoulder more responsibility for its defence. “The president is getting results,” he said. “More countries are stepping up their burden sharing. That is a good thing for them. It’s a good thing for NATO, and it’s a good thing for America.”

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

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