Trump's Reality Not so Great on the Facts

The German government has been trying to assess how Chancellor Merkel's visit with Donald Trump went. That’s proven to be no easy task.
Mr. Trump's ignorance added confusion to the converstion with Ms. Merkel.

In late 2015, Time Magazine riled Donald Trump by passing him over as person of the year in favor of Angela Merkel – or the “person who is ruining Germany,” as Mr. Trump called her in a subsequent tweet.

He should be much happier with the magazine’s current cover. “Is Truth Dead?” it asks. The issue contains an interview with the U.S. president, in which he reveals in detail how he cobbles together his private reality unencumbered by facts.

The German government is also struggling to separate fact from fiction in a world increasingly influenced by that reality. The spin on Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington is a case in point. As Ms. Merkel flew home, her staff still thought things had gone better than expected. Then Mr. Trump tweeted that the meeting with Ms. Merkel was fantastic, but Germany owed the United States huge sums for America's “very expensive” defense spending.

The claim was easy to refute: NATO doesn’t operate with promissory notes. Yet Britain’s Sunday Times reported soon after that Mr. Trump had given Ms. Merkel a written invoice for $340 billion (€319 billion), retroactively citing insufficient German defense expenditures and even billing for interest. Its source? A member of Ms. Merkel’s cabinet.

The issue contains an interview with the U.S. president, in which he reveals in detail how he cobbles together his private reality unencumbered by facts.

Mr. Trump’s people denied the report and, after some hesitation, were joined by their German counterparts. But speaking to those with backstage access to the meetings, the demand has been confirmed – if not its written form. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Trump is said to have told Ms. Merkel she was just great but owed him billions, basing his claim on the fact that back in 2002, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder had already promised Germany would spend more on defense.

It makes sense that Mr. Trump would do this. It’s just what his voters expect from him. It also makes sense that he denied having done so when the erroneous basis of the calculations was made public. The president is known to shy away from admitting his mistakes.

Moreover, sheer ignorance during conversations between Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel blurred the distinction between serious discourse and comic banter. The president – who has declared the TTIP free trade treaty between the European Union and the United States dead – proposed a German-American trade agreement. When Ms. Merkel explained that would be impossible because such treaties are negotiated by the European Union, Mr. Trump replied that there could be a bilateral understanding between Brussels and the United States. What? Does he believe Brussels is a country?

The chancellery was so perplexed that – in the hope of gaining insight into Mr. Trump's thinking – they invited his daughter Ivanka to a conference in Berlin at the end of April.

One German official who has experienced numerous U.S. presidents recalls that George W. Bush and his neoconservative crusaders also referred to their “own reality” – but sought to implement it through actions such as the Iraq War. “Trump, on the other hand, lives in a reality completely his own, whether he does anything or not.”


This article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]