Angela Merkel and Donald Trump set for tense White House encounter

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Germany’s first female chancellor had expected to be working with America’s first female president Hillary Clinton, a politician who shared her ideals and would protect the legacy of her close ally and friend Barack Obama.

But Angela Merkel awoke on November 9 to find that she would have to deal with a man who once accused her of ruining her country.

Ms Merkel, unlike Theresa May, decided to bide her time before rushing to Washington to meet Donald Trump; she chose instead to spend months studying his early moves, plotting how she could best influence an “America First” president out to disrupt the global order.

On Friday, she will see how effective her meticulous preparation has been when she finally comes face-to-face with Mr Trump in the Oval Office.

Observers question how two leaders, so dramatically different in policy and personality, can possibly forge a productive working relationship.

Mr Trump has repeatedly publicly criticised Mrs Merkel. Credit: AP

That theory disregards Ms Merkel’s past aptitude for dealing with challenging characters on the international stage - Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin to name just two.

And yet Mr Trump may pose her biggest challenge yet.

The US president has rallied against the European Union, questioned America’s commitment to NATO and warmly embraced Russia’s Mr Putin.

He has also attacked Ms Merkel personally by:

  • predicting that the “German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman”

  • accusing her of “ruining Germany”, when she beat him to TIME Magazine's Person of the Year 2015

  • calling her decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany a “catastrophic mistake”

For her part, Ms Merkel has been critical of Mr Trump’s controversial travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries and has delivered pointed reminders to the new president that future cooperation between their two countries depended on him upholding “common values”.

Mrs Merkel had a warm relationship with the former US leader Barack Obama. Credit: AP

Their past skirmishes only add to the intrigue surrounding their upcoming encounter.

The German leader - knowing her upcoming electoral prospects are vulnerable to the same forces that propelled Mr Trump to the White House - faces a tricky task of appearing both tough and non-confrontational, given the political and strategic interests at stake for her country.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, will hope a fruitful meeting with Europe’s longest-serving leader will provide a welcome distraction to the persistent questions surrounding his campaign’s ties to Russia, a subject still threatening to derail his presidency.

Their competing worldviews are set to collide; rarely has an encounter between an American and German leader been more closely watched.

We spoke to Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office for the European Council for Foreign Relations, about what's at stake in Tuesday's meeting.

  • How significant is this meeting for both Chancellor Merkel and President Trump?

For Angela Merkel, this visit is a test of her key role in European and international affairs.

At home and around Europe she needs to be seen as a respected leader with good working relations irrespective of diverging interests and political styles.

She comes as G20 presidency preparing the summit meeting in Hamburg, and she will let Trump know how she sees the risks and opportunities in international affairs and that she needs European cooperation on dealing with them and that she wants transatlantic cooperation as well.

For Trump, the meeting will be seen as a test on his beliefs as Merkel is widely seen as a critic of his approach to international affairs, transatlantic relations and Europe.

I expect both to be soft in their public statements, not concealing differences but underlining the will to work together.

Both sides are focused strongly on each other as the US is Germany's most important business partner after the EU and a key security actor in conflicts German political elites see as their security concerns as well.

Germany is a key player in Europe, likely more significant to the Trump administration than France or the UK.

  • What do you think Ms Merkel's strategy will be for negotiating with the new president?

She is not there to negotiate; she wants to share her views with him and hear what his are.

She will keep her cool on trade and security as she wants to signal to the US president that his strategy of provocation or intimidation will not work on her - and on Europe if she could have it her way.

  • Do you think they can have a productive relationship given Mr Trump's rhetoric towards Ms Merkel on the campaign trail?

They will have to find some way to a productive relationship as this is in the interest of both sides.

For Merkel this will imply to deepen European cohesion and strengthen the will to act together in economic and security affairs.

Trump will not help, but his America first approach in both areas may serve as an "external federator".

For Trump, this will mean to put aside some of his hard ball talk on trade, and he needs to moderate his stance on China and Russia (which would be in the interest of the American foreign policy position anyway).