Last month, in a phone conversation between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, the US president shared his views on Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan.
“He’s a great guy,” Trump told the German chancellor, according to sources familiar with the exchange.
Merkel listened politely before pointing out that Erdogan had been lobbing vitriol at Germany and its European allies for weeks, denouncing them as the descendents of Nazis.
Trump was surprised, the sources said. He appeared unaware that Ankara and Berlin were in the midst of a fierce diplomatic row over whether Turkish ministers should be allowed to campaign in Germany for a referendum on boosting Erdogan’s powers.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The German government declined comment.
The exchange, weeks after Merkel paid her first visit to Trump in Washington, underscored the challenge the German leader faces as she tries to forge a relationship with a president that half a dozen European officials described as erratic and prone to rhetorical excess.
Six months after Trump’s election and a little more than a week before he makes his first trip to Europe as president, officials in Berlin and other European capitals are still unsure about where the Trump administration stands on many of the big issues that concern them.
Coupled with this confusion is relief that he has not turned US foreign policy on its head, as some feared, during his first months in office. Trump is no longer calling Nato obsolete. And he has kept Russia’s Vladimir Putin at arm’s length. Apart from his suggestion last month that an attack on policemen in Paris would help far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the French election, Trump has not intervened in European politics or sought to undermine the European Union.
His controversial National Security Adviser Mike Flynn has been fired, replaced by HR McMaster, who is seen as a smart, steady hand. And the influence of Steve Bannon, the White House adviser Europeans fear most, may be on the wane.
“We feel there is now a productive working relationship,” said Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to Washington.
But beneath the veneer are lingering questions about the president’s character and his policies on a range of issues.