In Summary

  • “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.

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, citing the confidential nature of the call.

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 who spoke to Reuters described as erratic, ill prepared 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 H.R. 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.

German officials remain worried about a shift to protectionism under Trump, despite his less confrontational rhetoric toward China and his decision to drop controversial plans for a border adjustment tax.

Several European diplomats expressed concern about what they view as the lack of a coherent US strategy on Syria.

Some of them said the abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey showed Trump was capable of taking rash decisions on issues of major importance. Reports that he revealed highly classified information to Russia’s foreign minister at a meeting in the Oval Office last week seem likely to aggravate the level of distrust in European capitals.

“The doubts about the professionalism of Trump’s team, at least in foreign and security policy, have receded,” one veteran German diplomat said. “But the doubts about Trump himself, his character, maturity and trustworthiness, have only grown.”

A second German official said: “You shouldn’t underestimate the influence of Trump on the Trump administration.”

Few foreign leaders have as much riding on the relationship as Merkel.

Germany relies heavily on the United States for its security. And a tit-for-tat protectionist spiral could threaten its export-reliant economy.

In July, just two months before Germany holds an election, Merkel will host a tricky G20 summit in Hamburg, where Trump is expected to meet Putin for the first time. Turkish President Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping will also be there.

Merkel has been sparring with Putin and Erdogan for over a decade and worked with two US presidents before Trump.

The writer filed this article from Washington