Angela Merkel rejected Donald Trump’s invitation to Washington fearing he might want to use a G7 leaders’ summit for an election-year photo op.
Barely 72 hours later, images of the U.S. president holding a bible in the air outside St. John’s Church suggested the German chancellor had not overestimated Trump’s penchant for stagecraft.
With five months to go until the U.S. election, transatlantic relations are at a new low — just as many experts say cooperation has never been more crucial.
At the start of his presidency, Trump regarded Europe as an afterthought. Now, there seems little left to the relationship but a bitter aftertaste for EU leaders who spent three years trying and failing to coax and cajole the combustible American into buying into the Western alliance.
They no longer have any illusion that Trump is going to change. The only question left is: Will he win in November?
“That’s really [Merkel] saying: ‘We’ll either see you on the other side of the election or, hopefully, we won’t see you at all’” — Max Bergmann, analyst
After Merkel demurred from attending the in-person G7 summit later this month, citing the continuing health risk of the coronavirus, Trump lashed out, deriding the club of economic powers “outdated” — just as he branded NATO “obsolete” at the start of his term. Trump also voiced yet again his wish for Russia, which was kicked out of the G8 over its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, to rejoin the group. The U.K., Canada and the EU swiftly rejected the idea, further underscoring the deep split among Western powers.
Max Bergmann, a senior fellow and expert on transatlantic relations at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank known for its liberal views, said there was no mistaking the Europeans’ message.
“The indication from Merkel that she is not going to attend the G-whatever Trump is proposing,” Bergmann said. “That’s really her saying: ‘We’ll either see you on the other side of the election or, hopefully, we won’t see you at all.’”
Trump began his tenure in the White House with the most important diplomatic posts in Europe held by fill-ins. That is again the case, with the envoy to Belgium working double duty as the the acting representative to the EU, and, as of Tuesday, the deputy chief of mission running the embassy in Berlin.
Neither job is expected to get a permanent replacement before next year.
“This administration has never really sought to engage Europe, and it’s sort of dropping the pretense that it’s going to at all, in what could be its final year,” Bergmann said.
In early December, leaders were thrilled to survive a NATO summit in the U.K. without any Trump-instigated disaster. British Tories, who were in the middle of a general election campaign, were particularly relieved for the relatively uneventful visit.
European leaders thought the relationship was bad, but at least had stabilized. Amid the coronavirus crisis, however, there’s no question things have gotten worse.
There were charges from Germany that Trump had tried to buy a biomedical firm working to develop a vaccine. The U.S. denied the allegations, but fears of a vaccine war persist, especially because of Trump’s refusal to participate in an EU-led pledging campaign to raise money for the coronavirus response.
Facing fierce criticism for his own mismanagement of the pandemic in the U.S., Trump lashed out at China and at the World Health Organization, and last week finally declared he would sever ties with the U.N. health agency.
In Brussels and other EU capitals, recent events have only confirmed the genuineness of Trump’s instincts regarding transatlantic relations: to treat America’s closest historic allies as punching bags, to be kicked at in the rare moments when they aren’t totally forgotten in a dark corner of the basement of his brain.
Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas condemned the violence in the U.S. | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
Meanwhile, Trump’s calls for stronger crackdowns and the militarized response to many street protests across the U.S., including the arrests of journalists and use of tear gas on unarmed demonstrators, have heightened fears in Europe that there is something deeply broken in U.S. society that even replacing Trump might not fix.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was among the European leaders to condemn the violence in the U.S. and call for restraint and respect for the rule of law.
On Tuesday, Maas called the protests in the U.S. “legitimate,” said he hoped they would remain peaceful and would yield change, and urged protections for journalists. On Wednesday, he followed up with a message clearly aimed at the White House. “Democrats must never escalate — not even through words,” he tweeted. “Threatening violence only triggers further violence.”
While the street clashes have raised new worries about where America is headed, it is the far more mundane issue of diplomatic appointments that has sent Europeans an unequivocal message about how transatlantic relations don’t rank as a priority.
It was not until July 2018, nearly a year and a half into Trump’s term, that the U.S. finally had an ambassador to the EU. Gordon Sondland, a longtime Republican Party fundraiser and hotel developer from Seattle, lasted little more than another year and a half before he was fired in what was widely viewed as retribution for his testimony to Congress during the impeachment investigation.
On May 1, nearly three months after dismissing Sondland, the White House quietly gave Ronald Gidwitz, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a second job: acting representative to the EU. Officials said his elevation, as a political appointee of Trump, reflected the importance of the job to the White House.
Like Sondland, Gidwitz is a Republican money-man who led fundraising for Trump’s campaign in Illinois, where he was long active in civic life, including as chairman of the state board of education, and head of the community college system in Chicago under a Democratic mayor. In 2006, he ran for the Republican nomination for governor, finishing fourth.
Even with the world facing a pandemic, Trump has continued to find ways to undermine the international order
Like Trump, Gidwitz inherited a business from his father, a beauty supply company called Helene Curtis Industries that was acquired by Unilever, the multinational conglomerate, in 1996. But Gidwitz may have less in common with Trump than with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose family business, Kushner Cos., owns thousands of rental apartments and has been accused of providing substandard housing to lower-income tenants.
Gidwitz and his family owned an interest in a low-income housing complex in Joliet, Illinois, where rents were subsidized by the U.S. federal government, but where residents and local politicians, including then U.S. Senator Barack Obama, had complained about “inhumane” conditions at the apartment complex, including a persistent stench of urine.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Gidwitz, during a court proceeding in 2017, acknowledged an array of security lapses.
In 2014, Gidwitz and his family lost a decade-long legal battle in which the city of Joliet had sought control of the property. But the saga did not end there. Gidwitz’s own lawyers sued him for not paying his bills, eventually winning a $5.7 million judgment. Gidwitz has said that the lawsuit was intended to pressure him and other owners to relinquish the property at a time when he was running for governor.
Gidwitz declined to comment on the record for this article. But people who have met him in Brussels say he believes the EU and U.S. share core interests and goals, even if they disagree on particular methods, such as the Iran nuclear agreement.
Ric Grenell has departed as the U.S. ambassador to Germany | Andrej Cukic/EPA
EU officials declined to comment on Gidwitz, citing protocol.
While Sondland was forced out, the other most prominent U.S. diplomat in Europe — the ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell — left voluntarily. Grenell returned to Washington earlier this year to serve as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, while retaining his ambassador post. But on Tuesday, his resignation became official and Robin Quinville, a career foreign service officer, took over as chargé d’affaires.
Grenell, an aggressive supporter of Trump’s policies, at times stirred controversy in Germany, including by saying he hoped to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” and by harshly criticizing Berlin over its defense spending, the NordStream 2 gas pipeline project, which Trump opposes, and the Iran nuclear deal, among other issues.
Bergmann, of the Center for American Progress, said that while some German officials might be glad to see Grenell leave, the overall message is not a good one for the EU.
“In Berlin it’s a sigh of relief, I don’t think there is any eagerness for a new Trump-appointed ambassador,” he said. But he added: “Not having an ambassador to Germany, having a dual-hatted acting ambassador to the EU, just shows the administration’s view of Europe. It doesn’t value Europe as a partner the way it should, and that’s just reflected in these appointments.”
The State Department has insisted that relations with Europe remain strong, and that close cooperation with the EU continues quietly behind the scenes.
In a press release last month, the State Department described weekly phone calls that it said were being led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun, and that also include the European Commission.
“These calls have allowed the United States and our Transatlantic Allies and partners to share ideas and best practices in responding to the unique and complex challenges presented by the global pandemic and plan for safely reopening our economies and commerce,” the State Department said.
An EU official confirmed that the calls have been taking place and described them as positive. “The EU and U.S. are essential partners not only in the coronavirus context, but our partnership goes far beyond that,” the official said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hasn’t visited Washington since taking office | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
But other officials said that overall the pandemic has exposed more fissures in the relationship with the U.S., including when Trump announced a travel ban on March 11 with no notice or consultation.
That move unleashed chaos at European airports, and experts now say it likely contributed to the spread of coronavirus as U.S. citizens infected with COVID-19 boarded planes and stood in queues in crowded airports as they raced home for fear of being stranded overseas.
Even with the world facing a pandemic, Trump has continued to find ways to undermine the international order, such as by pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty.
Meanwhile, old disagreements persist. EU leaders also have little hope that outstanding trade disputes will be resolved before the November election. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in fact, has not visited Washington since taking office on December 1.