Donald Trump: Relations between the United States and Germany

[00:00:08] Yasemin Yüksel Welcome to Voices Catch, the SPIEGEL Political Podcast. I am Yasemin Yüksel.

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[00:00:43] Donald Trump We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

[00:00:57] Yasemin Yüksel To end a war, the United States had targeted Iranian General Soleimani, not to start a war. At least that's what US President Donald Trump thinks. However, many countries view this very differently. Seldom has the fear of war in the Middle East been as great as it is these days. The current crisis between Iran and the United States shows once again that whoever sits in the White House and how politics is done there has an impact on the whole world and logically also on Germany. And that's why we are looking to the USA in this first episode of Voting in the New Year. Because there are presidential elections in November. What is the status there? And what about the German-American relationship at the moment? My colleague Roland Nelles is a SPIEGEL correspondent in Washington and he has the answers to my questions about the US election and everything around it.

[00:01:47] Yasemin Yüksel Hello Roland, I am glad that you have time for our Skype call.

[00:01:50] Roland Nelles Yes, hello from the United States.

[00:01:52] Yasemin Yüksel Roland, why should the rest of the world, why should we in Germany be interested in this election, the upcoming election in the USA?

[00:02:00] Roland Nelles Well, America has 320 million inhabitants, the world's largest military power, the world's largest economic power. Who is elected is of course important. Especially in the United States – as we know – a president is up for re-election, for possible, who has a disruptive political style, as I would say. [Who] is someone who would like to completely turn the existing order upside down. And that, of course, also has an enormous impact for us, and it is therefore worth double looking at it.

[00:02:31] Yasemin Yüksel Yes, that's exactly what the Iran crisis shows. Roland, while the whole world is now looking at this foreign policy conflict, Trump actually has a completely different problem domestically.

[00:02:42] Einspieler “President Trump has just been impeached on both article I – abuse of power – and article II – obstruction of congress” – “With a majority in the House of Representatives, the Democrats in the US Congress have initiated impeachment proceedings against US President Trump”.

[00:02:57] Yasemin Yüksel What is the status of impeachment? In the end, the US Senate will decide whether Trump could be removed from office. And the Republicans have the majority in the Senate. Does that mean that this impeachment won't hurt Trump at all?

[00:03:11] Roland Nelles Well, I think it actually depends a bit on how this process, how this process works in the Senate. There are still some interesting witnesses who were in the White House when the Ukrainian affair took place, of which we have never heard of, for example the security adviser at the time John Bolton or Trump's chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. And if they testify now, then that could again reveal interesting details and also completely new insights. And that would potentially do even more damage to Trump. I believe that even if Trump, as everyone predicts, ultimately emerges with the republican majority, as a brilliant winner, as some say, something will still get stuck, of course. Because the people who may be critical of him, but are not quite as sure as they are, may choose to think twice now when new details come to light, if they want to vote again for these presidents.

[00:04:10] Yasemin Yüksel Can you describe how Trump behaves in this process, how he fights back? He discredited his opponents from the start – above all Nancy Pelosi from the US Democrats.

[00:04:38] Donald Trump That crazy Nancy, she is crazy.

[00:04:39] Yasemin Yüksel He speaks of a witch hunt.

[00:04:39] Donald Trump What happened to me with this witch hunt should never be allowed to happen to another President of the United States never ever again.

[00:04:39] Roland Nelles Trump always has the strategy to say, he's completely innocent …

[00:04:46] Donald Trump We did nothing wrong.

[00:04:46] Roland Nelles … and there is a campaign against him and he is the victim.

[00:04:51] Donald Trump They don't even have any crime! This is the first impeachment where there is no crime. I say, tell me what I did, please. “Well, we don't know – you violated the constitution”. I am the first person that ever get impeached and there is no crime.

[00:04:51] Roland Nelles So that's always this triad, so to speak. And then, in a fourth step, he may always accuse the acts he committed himself, presumably, he always accuses others of.

[00:05:29] Donald Trump You are the ones obstructing justice, you are the ones bringing pain and suffering to our republic for your own selfish personal, political and partisan gain.

[00:05:29] Roland Nelles This is his classic approach, so to speak. That's how he does it here. And, I believe, he was still undecided how to act tactically in dealing with this Senate procedure. And he probably had the hope that this procedure would never even happen. And now, of course, he is betting that there will be no witness interviews or, if at all, only interviews that may harm the other party. So, he argues, for example, that Joe Biden should be interviewed or his son, Hunter Biden, in the Ukraine affair.

[00:06:40] Donald Trump Now, think of it, where is Hunter, locate … get us where Hunter is. I want to see Hunter. Hunter, you don't know nothing about energy, you don't know nothing about China. You know nothing about anything, frankly. Hunter, you are a loser! And your father was never considered smart. He was never considered a good senator. He was only a good Vice President because he understood how to kiss Barack Obama's ass.

[00:06:40] Roland Nelles Of course he hopes that the focus of the public, public opinion, will be directed back to the Democrats and the Bidens.

[00:06:49] Yasemin Yüksel From a distance, I have to say that this procedure exists, it seems to me a good sign that US democracy, that the system works. At the same time, when I think that the result will most likely be the result, he will not be removed from office – am I a bad loser now if I have a problem with it?

[00:07:07] Roland Nelles Oh, my God, I mean, the procedures are regulated in the U.S. Constitution. It's just that the Republicans are mostly behind Trump. It is also the case that these people are all elected, lawfully elected, just like Trump was lawfully elected. This is one side, so to speak. The other side is always: I think that this big question, whether American democracy still works, that it actually remains unanswered. Because: It is basically the case that Trump permanently violates all the standards that democracy has established in its long history, which have been developed there. And what this shift in norms that Trump is making, i.e. in the Ukraine affair and in all … in many other things, that these shifts in norms actually mean and how they may harm democracy in the long term – that is not yet answered this question, that cannot really be predicted yet.

[00:08:05] Yasemin Yüksel Let's get closer to the election campaign. How much are the US Republicans actually behind Trump so far?

[00:08:12] Roland Nelles Pretty strong.

[00:08:18] Trump supporters We want Trump, we want Trump, we want Trump!

[00:08:18] Roland Nelles There is this mechanism that Trump is actually extremely popular at the party base. He has very high approval rates of more than 80 percent. Some surveys even see him over 90 percent. So – and if the party base thinks Trump is so great, then the other mandate holders of the party have to draw their conclusions from it or believe that they have to draw their conclusions from it, because of course they would otherwise fear that if they stand up to Trump, that they may no longer be set up in the next election – from this very party base.

[00:09:09] Greg Murphy Thank you, President Trump, for coming back to Eastern North Carolina. This is Trump Country! And I promise, if elected your congressman, I will be a congressman that has our president's back.

[00:09:09] Roland Nelles This is a mechanism that is very powerful here and of course Trump also uses it to create discipline in the party. That is one thing, so to speak. And the other thing that shouldn't be forgotten is that many really agree with what Trump is doing. It's not that they are now only forced to follow him, but they find that everything he does is really right.

[00:09:47] Donald Trump We freed up our country, we freed up our economy, especially with regulation cuts, but also with those big beautiful tax cuts. We freed it up.

[00:09:48] Roland Nelles So they like his foreign policy, they like his tax cuts. They think it's good that he somehow wants to close the border. They think it's all really great, and that's why they have no problem supporting him. He has the world's largest mouthpiece as President, as American President. What he says is transmitted to all households – at any time, 24 hours a day. And then at some point, when the slogans are repeated over and over again, people start to believe all of this and to do what he says. And critical thinking and questioning and questioning and observing democratic norms – all of these things fall under the table.

[00:10:28] Yasemin Yüksel It can make you very thoughtful about what you say. Before we get to the German-American relationship, we have to look at the US Democrats. So far we don't know who the democratic candidate will be. How do the US Democrats go into the election campaign? What can you say about the status quo?

[00:10:47] Roland Nelles So basically there are currently four to five front runners like this, people who could make that up between themselves.

[00:11:04] Donald Trump Right now Sleepy Joe is not looking too good. Pocahontas is gaining a little bit. Hey Bernie! Let me save you a lot of time and effort, Bernie. You missed your time.

[00:11:04] Roland Nelles The names are well known: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. They are all doing relatively well in the surveys. And what can happen is that when the primaries begin – the famous democratic primaries – that it is not really clear who is the favorite, but that it continues as before – namely that everyone does a bit wins from them. And then for example – no idea – Pete Buttigieg wins Iowa.

[00:11:48] Donald Trump And then you have a younger Buttigieg, Buuutrieg they are saying how to say his name: Boot – edge – edge. That is not a star. Buuuuutiiigieg. You say boot, and then edge, edge.

[00:11:48] Roland Nelles Biden wins in South Carolina, Bernie Sanders wins in Nevada. And suddenly we don't really know who is in front, and it can drag on for a while. And then, if it is the case that there is no clear favorite at the end of these primaries, then it could be that the matter will only be decided at the party conference, i.e. the Democratic party conference in Milwaukee in July. And that would also be a completely new situation. And then, for example, someone like Mike Bloomberg, this billionaire who uses all his money to somehow step in the door, would also come into play. So that's a relatively open situation.

[00:12:36] Yasemin Yüksel This choice will have an impact on the whole world, but also on Germany. That's why we're talking about it today. How would you say – at the moment – is the German-American relationship at the moment? How about your water level message?

[00:12:50] Roland Nelles I would say it's a very cold relationship.

[00:12:55] Angela Merkel So I just wanted to say I can confirm that. We have already had very positive talks here and we will continue to do so bilaterally. And I think that even given the close relationship between our two countries, we can discuss difficult issues well with one another.

[00:13:10] Roland Nelles I would not say that it is a totally bad relationship. The two countries and the political actors in both countries are still too closely linked in many organizations and many procedures.

[00:13:37] Donald Trump Chancellor Merkel and I have really – I think – come to some very good conclusions on a lot of things, including trade. We do a tremendous amount of trade with Germany.

[00:13:37] Roland Nelles But the relationship is hypothermic and it just was better earlier.

[00:14:06] Barack Obama It is also wonderful to be back with my great friend and ally, Chancellor Merkel. As I reflect back over the last eight years, I could not ask for a steadier or more reliable partner on the world stage – often through some very challenging times. So, I want to thank you for your friendship, for your leadership and your commitment to our alliance.

[00:14:06] Roland Nelles And I don't think that will change in the course of this year, because Trump still believes that Germany and other Europeans rip him off in all sorts of ways.

[00:14:33] Donald Trump Except now we are no longer the suckers – like with NATO. We protect Europe, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars and they are not paying their fair share.

[00:14:33] Roland Nelles German-American relations will probably only get better if there is a president who appreciates the value of alliances, who maintain a close relationship with Europe, and who deal with Europeans the way one does do among confidants and allies – namely at eye level.

[00:14:55] Yasemin Yüksel A sentence often comes from the German side when it comes to America – for example, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was here in Berlin last May. The Chancellor said at the joint press conference:

[00:15:06] Angela Merkel The United States is and remains the most important partner for Germany outside of Europe.

[00:15:12] Yasemin Yüksel Is it Germany's right strategy towards Trump, who – as you just mentioned – pretty much trampled on everything that was the traditional principles of transatlantic politics, namely multilateralism rather than nationalism et cetera?

[00:15:29] Roland Nelles At Macron you could see that at the beginning he tried to make himself a little lovable with Trump, invited him, charmed him and believed that he would somehow get ahead in this way. And then you realized that it didn't work, and you also switched to France and are now basically on a confrontation course in France with Trump and with the United States. Merkel has always taken such a middle course in her inimitable way, has always tried to argue somehow and to take the emotion out of the whole story a bit.

[00:16:05] Angela Merkel In conclusion, I would like to say that in addition to the political relationships, which are close and which are certainly sometimes carried out from different perspectives, but overall on a very friendly and close basis, our peoples are very much connected.

[00:16:20] Roland Nelles I personally believe that Trump is someone who actually only understands a clear language, someone who also needs contradictions, even from allies. And that is why it is important to be self-confident and sometimes tough on him. German politics could sometimes be a bit more daring, I think.

[00:16:42] Yasemin Yüksel Interesting! I want to give you an example of how Trump speaks about Germany, or the Chancellor, Angela Merkel. In July, Trump made a speech in North Carolina to supporters:

[00:17:26] Donald Trump There was a recent poll: Germany likes Obama better than Trump – a lot better. I said, of course, because I am making them pay their bills. I am saying, you got to pay. I say, Angela, Angela, you got to pay, Angela. Obama would go make a speech and leave. I go and make a speech and I say: Let me speak to Angela! Angela, you got to pay your bills! You are way behind. So, I would think they should, they should all. When you hear they like me better, I am not doing my job.

[00:17:26] Yasemin Yüksel What does he achieve with such statements? Or what does he intend there?

[00:17:35] Roland Nelles Well, that basically shows that above all – like everything with him – it has an internal political dimension. That means that when he attacks Germany and presents himself as the great foreign politician, he does it primarily to please his base, to please his supporters somehow and to present himself as a strong man. Once you understand that, you also know that he sometimes appears very loud, but then doesn't pull through. That he doesn't even do some things that he may sound great about in America, that in the end he doesn't do them so hard towards the allies.

[00:18:14] Yasemin Yüksel You said earlier that the relationship is at least hypothermic. It was said that Obama and Merkel sometimes called each other on a weekly basis. What do you actually know about the communication between Trump and Merkel?

[00:18:27] Roland Nelles When you talk to diplomats like that, it was … there was a time when they always said to you: Yes, yes, they talk to each other regularly, and so on, but we don't always hang out on the big bell , But now I actually think that they don't have much contact anymore. Of course, there are still contacts on the working level that you know that way. But between Merkel and Trump, that's really not a particularly good relationship – not even a particularly good employment relationship in my opinion. And I think that will continue for the time being.

[00:18:58] Yasemin Yüksel You said earlier that Trump might be someone who also needs clear edges and a clear contradiction more often. The Chancellor flew to the USA in spring 2019, not to Washington, but to Boston:

[00:19:12] Angela Merkel Dear Harvard vintage 2019, your generation will face the challenges of the 21st century in the coming decades.

[00:19:27] Yasemin Yüksel There she received an honorary doctorate, and she gave a speech there that was remarkable because she incorporated a relatively clear criticism of Trump into her speech.

[00:19:38] Angela Merkel I have learned that even if we see the world through the eyes of others, answers can be found even for difficult questions. Where would it be better to start with it than right here, in this place where so many young people from all over the world learn, research and discuss the questions of our time together under the motto of truth? This means that we do not call lies truths and truths, not lies.

[00:20:21] Yasemin Yüksel Roland, you probably also remember this speech, I have now looked at it in preparation – the video on YouTube. Then, when you said that sentence, the people in the audience got up, there was a standing ovation. That was a special moment. Was such a thing perceived in the US as a criticism of a German chancellor at the US president?

[00:20:41] Roland Nelles It wasn't a big issue here. That was a big topic in Germany, of course, but at least it wasn't really discussed here in the media at the time, I remember. I was there myself and also wrote something about it. And the response in the US media has been relatively subdued on media coverage. Nevertheless, it is of course in the White House and in the State Department and on the office floors, of course the message has arrived, and that's why I thought it was good and right then that Merkel did it. That was exactly the tone that you sometimes have to strike here, also as German Chancellor towards the President and towards the USA. According to the motto: We don't put up with everything. I think that's a good approach, too, because it in turn means that people who may have a moderating influence on Trump then try to have a moderating effect on him. And who knows … I mean that we have raised the car tariffs in the form Trump once announced, 25 percent higher, that we don't have them yet, maybe that has something to do with that too was held against.

[00:21:47] Yasemin Yüksel Roland, as a last question: You have been in the US for almost four years now and I would still be interested: What does Trumps America have, the way he also looks at the media and discredits the media – what does that have in you of time now as a journalist?

[00:22:05] Roland Nelles As a journalist, of course, you get mad when you are attacked in the form of a profession. And if the whole profession is constantly assumed here that one would work on a conspiracy. Of course it's completely absurd …

[00:22:24] Donald Trump The press honestly is out of control, the level of dishonesty is out of control.

[00:22:24] Roland Nelles … because it simply turns the truth upside down. And of course it is also cutting edge in a way when you really go out of your way and a lot of great American colleagues really go out of their way to do a great job here.

[00:22:45] Donald Trump Don't be … No, I not going to give you … no, I not going to give you a question. You are fake news! Go ahead.

[00:22:45] Roland Nelles If the president attacks freedom of expression in this way, it is incredibly annoying, and it is still one of the biggest scandals of this Trump presidency, I think. Of course he does that to discredit the journalists, to criticize him … to take the wind out of his sails. It's totally transparent, and then you get annoyed that people still fall for it and parrot what he's saying. Because it's just so scandalous and stupid that you ask yourself again: How can it be that people really believe that. What I've learned here over the years is that the country is divided anyway. And it is already the case that the Trump people always speak of the “Coastly Elites”, that is, the elites on the coast who would not vote for them. But that's just a conflict that has been going on in the country for a long time and that is just getting worse now. And then there are just as many other conflicts here that I've only really discovered and understood since I've been here. The conflict between rich and poor, between white and black, that is, between the different cultures here. There are so many lines that go through the country and fault lines that go through the country. So far it has always been the case that people said: Okay, the president, the flag, the anthem, these are the unifying elements that somehow hold all this madness together. And that has worked to some extent so far. Only if the division, and the president, are now also running the split, then one wonders: Where should all this end?

[00:24:37] Donald Trump The vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American Dream – frankly the destruction of our country.

[00:24:37] Roland Nelles Sometimes you would wish for it or I actually do it every day … When I get up, I wish: Why wouldn't Trump try to somehow bring this together a little bit more here and work this split … against this split? And he continues to deepen them through his behavior. It is so a shame and so fatal because he would also have had the chance to turn it around again at the beginning of his presidency and be another, somewhat different president. But he hasn't done it yet. Yes, it is also a wasted opportunity because he could have brought it together.

[00:25:10] Yasemin Yüksel And one of the reasons why this US election has ramifications for all of us, including those who don't live in the United States. Thank you very much, Roland, for your time and for opening the year with us. Until next time, thank you for your assessment!

[00:25:25] Roland Nelles Very happy, goodbye to Germany.

[00:25:29] Yasemin Yüksel That was the catch of votes, the political podcast by SPIEGEL. The editorial deadline for this issue was Wednesday evening, on January 8 at 6 p.m. The next episode will be released next Thursday – as always on, on Spotify, iTunes and in all popular podcast apps. As always, we look forward to your feedback. You can send us an email to or you can speak to our voice mailbox at 040 380 80 400. To the same number, that is 040 380 80 400. You can also send us a WhatsApp message. This episode was produced by Matthias Kirsch and me, Yasemin Yüksel. Thanks for the support this week to Maike Gomm, Philipp Fackler, Sebastian Fischer, Johannes Kückens, Wiebke Rasmussen and Matthias Streitz. The voice-catching music comes from Davide Russo.

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