- German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly prepared for her first meeting with President Donald Trump by reading his 1990 interview with Playboy.
- The article offers a distinct portrait of Trump’s views on foreign policy and economics.
- The interview reveals Trump’s political philosophy hasn’t shifted much in the past quarter-century or so.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel knew from the start she’d have her work cut out for her with President Donald Trump.
The two leaders’ temperaments and worldviews could not be more different, and they’ve routinely clashed over an array of issues. Trump has driven US-German relations to their lowest point in decades, threatening to upend an intimate partnership forged in the devastating aftermath of World War II and solidified with the end of the Cold War.
Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, John B. Emerson, who served as US ambassador to Germany under former President Barack Obama, advised her to build a personal relationship with Trump if she hoped to get through to him.
“My advice was: get to Washington as fast as possible and build a personal relationship with him, because that’s how Trump operates,” Emerson recently told The New Yorker.
Merkel had her first meeting with Trump relatively early on in his presidency in March 2017. She prepared for it, in part, by reading Trump’s 1990 interview with Playboy, according to The New Yorker.
Ahead of Japanese President Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Trump that came roughly a month before Merkel’s visit, Japanese officials had reportedly read the same interview as part of their prep for the occasion.
Though it might sound unusual to read a decades-old interview from Playboy to prepare for a meeting with the President of the United States, the article offers a distinct portrait of Trump’s views on foreign policy and economics.
In the interview, for example, Trump was asked the first thing he would do if elected president. In the late 1980s it looked like Trump might run for president, which seemingly prompted the question.
At the time, Trump said, “Many things. A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again.”
Fast forward to 2018: Trump frequently complains the US has been taken advantage of in trade deals with Germany and other European countries, and has threatened to slap heavy tariffs on German cars coming into the US. The president has placed trade at the top of his agenda from the start, and is in the midst of an ongoing trade war with China.
During the interview, Trump also said he believed then-President George H.W. Bush was wrong to call for a “kinder, gentler America.”
“I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump said at the time.
He went on to say that a President Trump would “believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing…. We’re being laughed at around the world, defending Japan.”
In the present day, Trump habitually discusses strengthening the military and boasts about the ways in which he’s purportedly improved it. Trump has also put the US at odds with its traditional allies on myriad issues, from the Paris climate accord to the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, he continuously accuses NATO allies of not paying their fair share, claiming they owe the US for protecting them.
Perhaps the only aspect of Trump’s above statement from the 1990 interview that is not necessarily reflected in his current approach to the presidency is the claim he “wouldn’t trust the Russians.” Trump has faced a great deal of criticism over his dubious demeanor toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly in relation to the Kremlin’s interference in the US presidential election.
In another part of the Playboy interview, Trump seemed to express admiration for the Chinese government’s infamous, brutal crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Trump said, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump frequently complained the world doesn’t respect the US anymore, and without much evidence has claimed to have changed that since entering the White House. He’s also developed close relationships with some of the world’s most ruthless authoritarians, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he’s publicly praised on numerous occassions.
Indeed, the 1990 Playboy interview foreshadowed much of what we’ve seen from Trump as president so far. It reveals his political philosophy hasn’t evolved much in the past quarter-century, even as the world has changed in massive ways.
Accordingly, it makes sense that Merkel would read the interview to get a sense of how Trump thinks prior to their first encounter. But in spite of her apparent efforts to prepare, Merkel’s initial meeting with Trump set the stage for a tumultuous relationship between two world leaders who struggled to see eye-to-eye on virtually any issue. If nothing else, Trump and Merkel have at least produced some of the most uncomfortable, striking photographs featuring world leaders in recent memory.