Trump’s relationship with Merkel sinks even lower

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE’s relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemingly couldn’t get any colder.

The two have been at odds since before his presidency began.

Trump ripped Merkel during the campaign and didn't shake her hand the first time she visited Washington after his inauguration.

Merkel, who enjoyed a strong relationship with President Obama, has responded in kind. Her office released a now-famous photo after the G-7 summit in Canada earlier this year that appeared to depict her staring down Trump. For many, the photo highlighted Trump's isolation among Western leaders.

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On policies, the two are far apart.

Trump's “America First” agenda has meant tariffs on German exports and a hard public line on taking in immigrants and refugees. Merkel has pressed for free trade and more open borders, though she faces resistance to some of those policies at home.

On Wednesday, relations sank even lower, with President Trump kicking off a NATO summit by accusing the U.S. ally of being a Russian “captive.”

The cumulative effect could chip away at the U.S.’s relationship with the person many consider Europe’s de facto leader, and undermine the unity of the NATO alliance as a whole.

“I think it’s just stormy seas ahead for U.S.-German relations, and particularly Trump I think is using the visit to Brussels as an opening salvo in a potentially wider trade war with key members of the EU like Germany,” said Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center.

Trump started using Merkel as a foil during the presidential campaign, first attacking her immigration policies as “insane” during an October 2015 “Face the Nation” interview.

A couple months later, Merkel was named Time’s Person of the Year for 2015.

“I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favorite They picked person who is ruining Germany,” Trump tweeted then.

Since becoming president, Trump has repeatedly attacked Merkel for Germany’s defense spending. Last year, he tweeted that Germany owes the United States “vast sums of money” for failing to meet NATO’s spending goal.

And he attacked her policies after the G-7 summit in June, claiming incorrectly on Twitter that crime in Germany had gone up by 10 percent following Merkel's decision to allow refugees into the country.

The latest chapter of their saga unfolded during the first day of NATO’s summit.

At a breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday, Trump railed against Germany for its defense spending and plans for a gas pipeline with Russia.

“Germany is totally controlled by Russia, because they will be getting from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline,” Trump said. “So we have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country that we’re supposed to be protecting you against. … Now, if you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia because they supply.”

Merkel shot back, drawing a contrast to the history of Soviet-controlled East Germany, where she grew up.

"I wanted to say that, because of current events, I have witnessed this myself, that a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union. And I am very happy that we are today unified in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany," Merkel said in her arrival remarks at the summit.

Despite the bitter morning, Trump and Merkel played nice in a one-on-one meeting later Wednesday.

“We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor,” Trump said. “We have a tremendous relationship with Germany."

Merkel responded by saying she was “very pleased, indeed, to have this opportunity here for this exchange of views. … I think they’re very important to have those exchanges together. Because after all, we are partners, we are good partners, and we wish to continue to cooperate in the future.”

Germany is one of the NATO member nations who agreed to the goal of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense. Germany is expected to hit 1.24 percent this year, according to NATO figures.

But the 2 percent goal that was set in 2014 is meant to be reached in 2024. Further, the goal applies to each country’s own defense budget, not NATO spending, meaning those that do not hit it do not owe other NATO countries money.

Merkel, who has faced challenges to her leadership at home in recent months, has pledged to boost Germany’s defense spending. But Berlin is still expected to fall short of the 2 percent goal, with plans to reach 1.5 percent by 2024.

Germany faces challenges in achieving the 2 percent target. Because of the size of its economy, it would need to more than double its defense budget to meet the goal.

That’s a tall order for any country, but Germany in particular has been averse to boosts in military spending since World War II.

Germany also argues that it would have trouble absorbing such a large increase at such a fast pace. And Merkel also has to balance competing interests in her “grand coalition” government, where her Christian Democratic Union party shares power with the left-leaning Social Democrats.

Still, few disagree that Germany, the largest economy in Europe, should be spending more. And the Obama administration, too, opposed the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2.

Trump’s blunt approach and personal swipes at Merkel, though, have rubbed even some of his supporters the wrong way.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchJudiciary Dems say GOP treating Kavanaugh accuser worse than Anita Hill Dem vows to probe 'why the FBI stood down' on Kavanaugh Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh MORE (Utah), the most senior Republican in the Senate, called out Trump on Wednesday for his criticism of Germany and said the president was being overly critical of Merkel.

“I have really the highest opinion of her and those who are with her,” Hatch said. “I think sometimes you can be a little too critical of the other counterparts. I don’t think we should be critical. She’s really good.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Tenn.), who has sparred with Trump on foreign policy and trade, worried about publicly calling out an ally like Germany amid threats to Europe from Russia.

“I couldn’t agree more that every country needs to get to 2 percent, especially Germany,” he said. “At the same time, people are making improvements, and I think just harsh rhetoric relative to NATO partners is not something that takes us to a good place.”

He added that Trump has taken U.S.-German relations to an “unnecessary” place.

“The German people have a diminished view of our nation right now,” Corker said. “At the end of the day, what is important is what our citizens think and feel, but it’s just unnecessary. It’s unnecessary for us to be in this place.”

Jim Carafano, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who worked on the Trump transition, dismissed talk of lasting damage to relations as “histrionics.”

For example, he argued, U.S.-German relations survived turmoil in the 1980s amid disagreements over President Reagan’s plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Europe.

“At the end of the day, the U.S.-German strategic partnership is going to be fine,” he said. “The bedrock of the relationship is fine.”