German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump met today after months of subtle jabs from Washington to Berlin.
But all anyone will remember of the meeting was Trump’s decision to double down on the unfounded claims that he was wiretapped by British spies at the behest of the Obama administration, and his awkward attempt to joke about it with Merkel (whose phones had been tapped by the National Security Agency during the Obama years).
The strange moment at the press conference came just hours after the British electronic communications surveillance agency, the GCHQ, strongly denied claims that it had wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign and called the allegations “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
The British press reported Friday morning that Trump’s national security adviser had himself apologized to the British government for the allegation. Despite that message, Trump used the press conference with Merkel to neither apologize nor retract the statements made about wiretapping — and chose, instead, to pin the episode on a Fox News commentator.
“We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on TV," Trump said. "I didn't make opinion on it; that was statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox [News].”
Fox News, known for its conservative opinions, nonetheless quickly denied that it had any reporting to support Trump’s claim.
Shepard Smith just said Fox News has “no evidence of any kind” that Trump was surveilled “at any time, any way." pic.twitter.com/0pzP1WWr2t— Michael M. Grynbaum (@grynbaum) March 17, 2017
The upshot is that a sitting president attacked one of Washington’s closest allies based on unsubstantiated comments that even Fox News has how distanced itself from.
Trump joked about the moment, noting to Merkel that “at least we have something in common.” The joke prompted awkward laughter in the room.
On Thursday, the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee flatly said Trump’s wiretapping claims were baseless.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016," the panel’s chair, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and ranking member, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, said in a joint statement.
Trump had already been largely alone in trying to defend the allegation, which had been angrily denied by Obama and former aides like James Clapper, who was the nation’s top spy during the previous administration.
The conference also touched on the two leaders’ contrasting worldviews
But jokes aside, there were several moments in the press conference that were serious attempts to pin down the president on his global worldview, and where Chancellor Merkel stood in position to that.
At one point a German journalist called Trump “isolationist,” which seemed to rankle him.
Trump pushed back. “I don’t believe in isolationist policy, but I do believe a policy of trade should be a fair policy,” he said. “I’m not an isolationist; I’m a free trader and a fair trader.”
Merkel pivoted on the same question and offered a defense of the European Union, globalization, and freedom of movement. “I believe that globalization — to be shaped in an open-minded way but also in a fair way — freedom of movement, is a very important element of our economic progress of peace and has been for many, many decades.”
The statement was a subtle dig at Trump’s anti-EU and anti-NATO comments made before he even came into office. He once called the EU “a vehicle for Germany” and dismissed NATO as obsolete, which had prompted EU leaders to call him a “threat.”
Today he expressed support for NATO but pushed for nations to “pay what they owe” — working toward contributing at least 2 percent of each member country’s GDP.