James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:32 A.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d like to welcome all of you to this backgrounder. I’d like to start off by setting the ground rules if I can. So this is going to be backgrounder only. Attribution is going to be senior administration officials. And anything that goes on in this room is embargoed until we walk out of the room to allow us to get you the best information that we can.
We’re going to start with a brief statement and then we’ll move to a Q&A. So you can address — we’re going to introduce everybody. You can address your question up here and we’ll figure out who the best person is to answer you.
So, again, thanks for being here. And I’ll start off by allowing everyone to introduce themselves.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’ll start with just a quick statement here to lay out some of the context for this visit. So the President is very much looking forward to welcoming Chancellor Merkel to the White House on Tuesday. This will be their first meeting, and the Chancellor’s first visit to the United States in over two years.
The level of interaction between this administration and the German government has so far been frequent and robust. To name just a few interactions, Vice President Pence met the Chancellor last month in Munich. The German foreign and defense ministers were here last month as well. Secretary Tillerson was in Bonn for the G20 Foreign Ministerial last month, and Secretaries Mattis and Kelly attended the Munich Security Conference. So we’re very pleased with the level of interaction so far, and we trust that this will continue.
When he meets the Chancellor, the President will express his and the American people’s appreciation for the deep friendship that exists between the United States and Germany. We share so much history, and the bonds between our people are strong. Germany is one of our most important allies and partners in the world, and we cooperate with the Germans on everything from counterterrorism to European security to generating strong economic growth.
Germany is one of NATO’s strongest member states, and the President looks forward to talking with the Chancellor about how to strengthen the NATO alliance, including by ensuring that all allies shoulder the proper share of the burden for maintaining our collective defense. Every ally has to meet its commitments — something we know the German government believes as well. So we are heartened by the German government’s determination to reach NATO’s benchmark of committing 2 percent of GDP to defense by 2024.
The President is impressed by Chancellor Merkel’s leadership at a time when the states of the North Atlantic face a number of significant challenges, and he looks forward to consulting with her on our shared challenges.
We recognize, in particular, Germany’s leadership role, alongside France, in resolving the conflict in Ukraine and Germany’s enduring commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Germany also plays a central role in the global effort to counterterrorism and violent extremism, particularly through its contributions to the counter-ISIS coalition.
The United States is committed to strengthening our political defense, security and economic relationship with Germany and with Europe more broadly. We will continue to stand together with the German people, and we are looking forward to Chancellor Merkel’s visit on Tuesday.
Q Does the President that Germany is contributing enough money to NATO?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the President believes that all allies must shoulder their share of the defense burden. And as I mentioned, he is heartened to hear that the German government is committed to meeting the Wales pledge of spending 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Of course, the messages from the administration so far have been strong and consistent that all allies need to be making progress towards this 2 percent goal. And he is heartened so far by the signals he has seen from Berlin regarding increases in their defense budget. And so I expect that will be definitely a topic of their conversation for the concrete plan to meet this commitment.
Q What will the President say will be the consequences if Germany does not meet its commitment in terms of NATO?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t answer that question at present. I think they’re going to have a robust discussion about exactly how to operationalize this goal. And so I don’t want to speak to any part of what the President’s private discussions and negotiations will be on this issue.
Q Is 2024 acceptable to the President, or would you like it to be met sooner than that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, of course, that’s going to be a discussion that he’s going to want to have with all allies, including the Germans. But during his planned participation in the NATO leaders meeting at the end of May, I’m sure this is going to be a topic of discussion about whether it is really feasible for all allies to accelerate that timeline. And so, again, this is going to be a topic of robust discussion.
Q And with the Germans in particular, as a leading economy and one of the participants in NATO maneuvers in other places like Afghanistan, does the President believe it’s especially important for Germany to set this example and to be out in front of this and ahead of the 2024 timetable?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He does believe that Germany, as one of the largest economies within NATO, should be setting an example and should be leading by example, as we do from the United States. And so I’m sure that, again, this is going to be a topic of discussion about how concretely we get there, to the 2 percent benchmark.
Q Hi, I have two questions. Will the President be discussing with Chancellor Merkel any of the allegations that Russia is potentially interfering in European elections? And also, will the two of them discuss any sort of engagement with Russia to resolve the Ukraine crisis?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, sure, what I can say is that the President will be very interested in hearing the Chancellor’s views on her experience interacting with Putin. Of course, she’s been doing this for more than a decade. She’s met with Putin I think for at least a couple of dozen times. And so he’s going to be very interested in hearing her insights and what it’s like to deal with the Russians.
He is also very interested in hearing her insights into the Minsk implementation process and really how we can work together to resolve the Ukraine conflict.
Q What about the allegations that Russia is seeking to interfere in various European elections?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t have a comment on that issue for you right now.
Q How do you plan to get around the potential awkwardness of Chancellor Merkel being a strong proponent of a strong EU? A strong proponent of immigration when the President sent very signals about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the Vice President, during his visit in Brussels, gave a pretty clear message that we are interested in maintaining our strong and enduring partnership with the European Union. We recognize that the European Union makes significant contributions to global peace and prosperity, and so he’s going to be interested in exploring this topic more with the Chancellor.
Q Thank you. A follow-up to the question on Russia. The Ukrainian process that you referred to, is it envisioned that the U.S. might play a big role in the process, a direct role?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think, again, this is going to be a topic that the President is going to want to discuss with the Chancellor, what role the United States can most helpfully play in this process. But I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of the meeting.
Q Hi, I have a question about the EU. Some of the EU officials have been saying they’re really worried about President Trump’s views towards the EU. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? About how the EU is valued or how it’s not valued, and how the conversation might happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, well, so I would refer you back to the Vice President’s comments, which were very clear and direct when he was in Brussels, about the value that we see in our partnership with the European Union, and again our recognition that the European Union is a key contributor to global peace and prosperity.
And again, I’m sure that the President will want to discuss again his views of the European Union with the Chancellor. And again, I can’t comment exactly on how that conversation is going to go or prejudge the outcome, but I’m sure it’s going to be a topic of discussion.
Q You didn’t mention climate in your opening statement. Do you expect that to be a topic of discussion, and what will the President’s message be to Chancellor Merkel about his commitment to either staying in the Paris Agreement or withdrawing from the Paris Agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure.
Q What’s going to happen in the interim?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s quite possible that that will be something that the Chancellor will raise. They don’t know for sure. Internally, the United States is still working on that issue, and that’s an issue that still is to be determined and will be discussed, I’m sure, with the Chancellor, but also further clarified in the weeks and months ahead, as we move forward to the G7 and the G20 ministerials and summit meetings.
Q Will the President be in any position to clarify what he want to do with the Paris agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t speak for the President on that. I know that we’re working on that issue internally. Whether we reach a decision by the time of the meeting or by the time of the summit meetings I think is still unclear.
Q And just on refugees, the President has been pretty critical of the Chancellor for her stance on that topic. Do you expect that to arise in their talks, and in what fashion will the President — that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Yeah, we expect it to come up. They’ve talked about this issue already on the phone. And you know, at this point, it’s how we move forward on this. And so the United States and Germany are doing quite a bit on counterterrorism, cooperation on border security, internal security cooperation. We have the NATO action that we’ve already had in the Aegean to help with migrants crossing from Turkey.
So the talk is out there, but there is quite a bit of work going on that we will continue to discuss behind scenes. And I’ll leave it at that.
Q The President was sharply critical of Chancellor Merkel on the campaign trail. What sort of tone would he like to set for this meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not aware of what criticism was on the campaign trail —
Q — migration.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the statement that my colleague made is very clear that the issue is one of several that is part of a very robust and expansive — term in American relationships. So it’ll come up, and we can have disagreements within the relationship, but, as I said, I think both leaders are determined to — working together forward on how we address the issue moving forward on the security element, on the funding element, economic element. I’ll leave it at that.
Q And what’s the President’s thinking in terms of how to get the Ukraine crisis resolved?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know if we want to think — I can’t say on the President’s thinking specifically, but he recognizes the leadership role that Germany and France have on this. And certainly the point of this meeting is to determine how we go forward in cooperation with France and Germany on this issue. And that’s why we’re very pleased to be having this so early in the administration.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let’s get a few questions from the back row.
Q With the current prioritization of defense spending by the administration, it would appear that the commitment to NATO is going up and not down, even as the President says money is pouring in from other countries. So what data is informing that? And then a second question is, will the President be endorsing Chancellor Merkel for reelection?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t endorse foreign leaders in foreign elections. Those are elections that will be run on domestic issues and domestic processes.
On the NATO issue, can you repeat the specifics of that?
Q So the administration has said that defense spending would go up, and that of course is part of our contribution to NATO. So it would appear that even though he’s been critical about how much the U.S. is putting toward NATO, that that would actually be going up, not down.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, yes, so I mean, the way that the NATO budget — or the commitment to defense spending is calculated, I mean, you look at the U.S. defense budget, it’s — we’re a global power. So we are committing part of that to Europe, part of that to Asia, elsewhere in the world.
So the commitment to defense spending is going to affect Europe, it’s going to affect other parts of the world as well. And he’s been very tough on the issue, and I think that he’s done so in a way that has encouraged the Europeans to look at increasing the commitment as well. We’ve already seen the statements from the Chancellor and the government on this — the German government, the foreign minister — on the commitment to get to 2 percent. So we’re encouraged by that and so, in many ways, we lead by example on what we put into defense. We expect the Germans to do so as well, and that’s very much going to be how they approach the issue I think in the meeting.
Q I guess I’d like to ask two questions. One is, how detailed do you think there can be of a trade discussion at this point? How much can you flesh out for us now on that? And I guess as part of that, do you think there will be any deliverables? Maybe it’s the Paris deal, maybe that’s what it is. And then — well, I have a second question but I’ll wait.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not aware of any specific deliverables. That’s not the purpose of the meeting. It’s to get together and discuss the range of issues that we have in our bilateral relationship. And it’s conceivable that trade may well come up; we don’t have any preconceived views that we’re going to be expressing on that. We want to have an open discussion on trade issues.
Q The sort of softer question I guess is, over the course of the past year —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: May I just add, by the way, I mean, we are aware, obviously, that there was a trade surplus that Germany has with the United States, and that will probably be, if trade comes up, a part of the discussion.
Q But not in the context of the President promoting the notion of bilateral, and Merkel promoting the notion of EU is the bilateral part? Like, you don’t think you’re just —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Germany is part of the European Union, so you could not have a bilateral trade agreement with them. You have to work through the European Union on that.
Q But okay, so it sounds like on the trade front, that’s not going to be the hugest piece of the spending?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t predict exactly which direction the discussion will go in. I think trade will be an issue that may well be on the agenda, and as I said, we recognize there’s a trade surplus and there may be a discussion around that as well.
Q On the softer question I think that I sort of wanted to ask, we know that Chancellor Merkel has spent many months studying President Trump by watching videos and reading things that he’s written, and I’m just curious, for those of you who know him well, has he been similarly interested in sort of studying what makes her tick, who she is, how to kind of figure out a way to have a relationship in that sense? And is there going to be some effort on his part — I guess “reset” is probably a loaded word, but he spent months talking about people are going to overthrow her, and the Syrian plan is terrible, and all this stuff. And he probably — they probably both want to find a way to fix that so they can be closer allies. What’s his part in thinking about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I am not aware that he — whether he spent time studying her or not. I assume the purpose of the meeting is going to be to build on a personal relationship and try to have the largest country in Europe and the United States have a positive interaction on a range of issues. So the goal going in would be to have a very positive meeting.
Q The G20 — the previous administration kept saying that the G20 is the preeminent international group for discussing economic issues. Will it be the same for the current administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t have any predisposed position as to whether it’s the preeminent group or not. As you know, the G20 has dealt largely with financial and economic issues historically, and then it became converted to a summit meeting in the wake of the financial crisis. But as to what its role is in the broader play of international events, we don’t have a particular opinion.
Q I guess my question is, do you think you’ll be moving more to bilateral — or are you still committed to working in these international fora?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, we will be attending the G7 and the G20 summits. We’ll also be having bilateral meetings at those events. We don’t see it as an either/or situation. And we’ll see how the overall summit meetings go.
Q Given the recent WikiLeaks releases, and given what we know out of the previous administration, Chancellor Merkel’s cellphone was hacked, what kind of reassurances can you give her and the German government that the United States is not looking into their television sets, their cellphones, their highly engineered automobiles, et cetera, et cetera.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re not going to comment on specific intelligence allegations. We’ll leave that to the proper agencies and departments to address that issue.
Q Does the President still believe that other EU countries will leave the EU, as he said in January? And does he think it’s a good thing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know his thinking on that. Certainly it’s for the countries — it’s an EU process, and I’m not going to prejudge what he thinks, whether countries should leave or not.
Q And can you just confirm that you’ll have a joint press conference after their meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There will. There will be a — yeah.
Q Thank you. I understand that you don’t want to discuss the allegations of Russian interference in the upcoming European elections, but does the United States believe that the elections should be held in a manner that’s free, fair and without interference?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that goes without question. Free and fair elections without interference is the gold standard that we love to see.
Q Just wanted to follow up on my colleague’s question. What’s this administration’s view of T-TIP, given what you said about bilateral — on trade?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have not formulated a final position on that. We have other trade priorities that we’ve been looking at earlier, but T-TIP is out there and that may well also be a topic of discussion during the meetings.
Q Would T-TIP violate the President’s aversion to multilateral trade deals? Or since the deal would have to be with the European Union and not with a specific country, as you said, would that then make it acceptable —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, that’s an issue that we’re looking at. T-TIP, as you said, is between — one could say it’s bilateral in a sense — it’s between the European Union and the United States. It also deals largely with regulatory issues and how to harmonize regulations in a way that eases trade and reduces some of the burden of a regulatory burden. And it’s hard to do that if you’re doing it just with one country at time.
But the broader T-TIP discussions are something that will await the confirmation of our U.S. trade representative and discussions with our Commerce Secretary.
Q Would that, by necessity, have to wait until Great Britain resolves its situation in terms of the European Union and the President’s expressed interest in a bilateral trade agreement with them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On T-TIP, I think — by the way, on T-TIP, one should point out that the Europeans aren’t going to be pushing that issue while they have a series of elections coming up through this year, including in Germany and in France as well. I don’t think T-TIP is necessarily dependent on Brexit occurring, but obviously the leaving of the European Union by the British government raises a whole series of economic issues as well that we’ve been in discussion with the British on, and that may also come up in the discussion with the Chancellor.
Q On the relationship between the U.S. and Germany, it was particularly strong under President Obama, and then the relationship between the U.S. and the UK was sort of put on the back burner. I’m wondering if you see that continuing with this administration.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we hope to have strong relationships with both countries. As you saw, Prime Minister May visited the first week when we were in office. The Chancellor’s visit is coming very soon thereafter. They’re both very important relationships with us and we want to manage them effectively.
Q Is it realistic to assume that we can have a strong relationship with Merkel under President Trump, given that — his insults against her during the campaign trail and President Obama’s particularly close relationship?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into what went on on the campaign trail, and I really don’t want to compare —
Q What’s your expectation of their personal relationship? How strong it can be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My expectation is that they’ll have a very positive, cordial meeting. That’s been the whole lead-up to it in terms of our interactions that were mentioned previously with the German representative of the German government, and I know that’s the desire that we have.
Q Given the President’s criticism of Chancellor Merkel’s policies, particularly with respect to refugees and generally the situation he sees in Germany with regards to terrorism, does he hope to convince Chancellor Merkel to change some of those policies or to close Germany’s borders in a stronger manner, like the U.S. has sought to do here? Particularly because he said that it was weakening Germany, weakening Europe during the campaign.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those are German government decisions. Certainly they’re going to discuss security comprehensively, and Europe, the North Atlantic countries. But those are decisions for the German government to make. And the discussion that they have had on this already and the discussion that they will have on this I presume will focus on the areas where we can cooperate. We don’t re-litigate the past, we don’t go back in and atone for things, but we go forward and look at what we can do together. And that’s what the focus is going to be.
Q Given, though, that Germany is part of the visa waiver program, for example, does the President believe that those policies are a problem for the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know his views on that and I’m not going to comment and try and guess what his views are.
Q Just to go back one last time on the issue of Russia and cyber war. It’s obviously a problem throughout Europe. It’s also a problem here in the United States. Do you anticipate sort of a fulsome discussion on the issue of cyber war?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So again, I can’t prejudge what the portion of their conversation is going to be, but I’m sure the cyber issue will come up because the President is very interested in us having very strong cyber defenses and in cooperation with the German government, again, on strengthening our collective defense against cyberattacks.
But again, I can’t comment on how much of the meeting is going to discuss that.
Q On the issue of Ukraine, you mentioned that the U.S. and President Trump recognizes France and Germany’s leadership goals in resolving the conflict. But at the same time, he’s obviously been very critical of the former administration’s failure to find a resolution there. Do you see any room for discussion about the U.S. — to enhance our role in the Minsk agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So as I said previously, I think that’s going to be a main subtopic of the discussion on Ukraine, which is what role can the United States most helpfully play in the ongoing diplomatic process. Again, I can’t prejudge what the level and the pace of U.S. engagement will be on that issue, but the President is going to be interested in soliciting the Chancellor’s view on how the process is going. Again, she and French President Hollande have been at this now for a couple of years. They have a very good understanding of what the positions of the sides are. He’s going to want to understand the dynamics of that negotiating process and see where the United States government can factor in most effectively on that.
Q Do you think there’s any possibility that they could ask to join the Normandy format?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I can’t prejudge what they may or may not agree to, but I’m sure they will discuss, again, what level of representation on the United States side, what pace of engagement would be most helpful in this ongoing diplomatic process.
Q Does the President have a view of what he thinks has been stalling the process with regards to the Ukrainian peace process? Is there anything in particular that he thinks has been unhelpful from one side or the other, or something that he believes should be done to kind of jumpstart this process again?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not aware of anything specific that he’s said about that. Again, he is still learning about the dynamics of the negotiating process, and this meeting with Chancellor Merkel is going to be a key discussion for him in understanding in greater detail what’s been going right, what’s been going wrong.
Q Does he at least think that there should be a larger U.S. role in the process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t prejudge that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have time for one more question.
Q You guys have said a couple of times that you’re not going to discuss what happened on the campaign trail. And I guess my question is, why not? Do you not believe that anything said on the campaign trail would have an impact between — on relationship between the United States and Germany?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, these guys aren’t campaign officials. They’re National Security Council staff, happy to talk about Germany and all that.
Q The relationship between the United States and Germany — does that not have an impact, sir?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not on the diplomatic relationship.
Q Well, I would like to thank everybody. I would like to thank my colleagues for being here and sharing your time and your insights. And everybody who is in the room and on the phone, thank you for participating. And I refer any further questions to White House press or to NSC strat-comm. And please remember that this is background only, and senior administration officials is how we’re going with that. And thank you again for being here.
11:00 A.M. EST