A day after Trump stunned his fellow NATO leaders, shoving one of them out of the way for a photo-op and demanding that they "must do more" to offset defense costs which are mostly borne by the US, Trump lobbed another bomb at the European center-right consensus by renewing his attacks on the German auto industry during a closed door meeting with two high-ranking European Union officials, according to a report in German magazine Der Spiegel, that was picked up by Bloomberg and CNBC.
Citing unidentified attendees, Spiegel quoted Trump as saying that “the Germans are bad, very bad” and adding “look at the millions of cars that they sell in the U.S. Terrible. We’re going to stop that.” The comments were said to have been made during a closed-door meeting with the EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Council President Donald Tusk, who reportedly both stood up for Germany, according to CNBC.
Trump administration officials immediately went into damage-control mode, even as Juncker said the reports of the comment in question had been exaggerated. National Economic Council Director and former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn clarified that the US has concerns with the US-German trade balance, not with Germany itself.
"He said they’re very bad on trade, but he doesn’t have a problem with Germany. He said his dad is from Germany. He said, ‘I don’t have a problem Germany, I have a problem with German trade'," according to Bloomberg.
The German trade surplus rose to a record €235 billion ($284 billion) last year, while the US trade deficit widened in January to its highest level since March 2012. Excluding the EU, Germany is the third largest exporter in the world, after China and the US.
Shares of German automakers were down slightly in Frankfurt trading following Trump’s comments, which apparently reminded investors of his January threat to slap BMW AG with a 35% tariff.
Trump reportedly tried to negotiate a bilateral trade deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited Washington in March, according to CNBC. But Merkel insisted that all trade deals with the EU must be made unilaterally.
Following his meeting with Merkel back in March, Trump claimed that the Germans owe “vast sums of money” to NATO, and that the US “must be paid more” for the defense services it provides to Germany.
To be sure, Trump wasn't the first U.S. leader to complain that most NATO nations, including Germany, weren’t meeting the alliance’s goal that members spend 2% of their GDP on defense. Germany spends about 1.2% currently.
In fact, none other than President Barack Obama in 2016 said in an interview with The Atlantic about his foreign policy doctrine that “free riders aggravate me.”