Washington, March 18 (IANS) US President Donald Trump used a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deflect criticism about his unsubstantiated claim that the Obama administration spied on him, reviving a sensitive diplomatic incident in which the US was revealed to have snooped on her cellphone.
During the press conference on Friday with Merkel, whose cellphone was tapped by the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2010, Trump quipped that he and the German leader had something in common, CNN reported.
“As far as wiretapping, I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said, turning to Merkel, who did not smile at the joke.
Merkel appeared to take several seconds to process what Trump had said, then frowned, and started shuffling her papers at an adjacent lectern in the East Room of the White House.
Trump was referring to a disclosure in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the US had spied in Germany, including monitoring Merkel’s cellphone. The revelation dealt a major blow to US-German relations at that time and damaged Merkel’s standing at home, Los Angeles Times reported.
The US President also took the opportunity to reject an unfounded report from a Fox News commentator asserting that British intelligence agents were involved in the alleged spying, even though White House officials had assured livid British leaders that they would no longer promote the claim.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer flatly denied that the White House apologised to the British government over spying allegations.
When the issue was raised during the conference, the President said that Spicer had been quoting a comment on Fox TV.
“We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
Trump met Merkel at the front door of the West Wing of the White House, but there were signs of strained interaction a little later when they appeared before cameras in the Oval Office, CNN reported.
When asked to shake hands by reporters and photographers, Trump remained stationary. He did not look at Merkel, although it was not clear whether the leaders heard the request.
Later, in the news conference, Trump expressed strong support for NATO, following his criticism of the alliance during his election campaign. But he also knocked members who do not pay their “fair share” for their defence.
He praised Germany’s efforts in Afghanistan and its contributions to the fight against the Islamic State.
Trump expressed appreciation for Merkel’s assurance that Germany is committed to increasing its military spending.
More differences were evident on the subject of immigration.
“Immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first, without question,” Trump said in the wake of court rulings blocking his second travel ban.
The German leader, who has criticised Trump’s travel ban, said that efforts to make borders secure and integrate immigrants must include “looking at the refugees as well, giving them opportunities to shape their own lives.”
On economic matters, the Chancellor said she hoped Trump would consider reopening discussions on the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed pact between the US and the European Union.
Merkel said she was in agreement with Trump that “trade has to be fairer, has to be a win-win situation.”