Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was cut off then laughed at while speaking by teleconference at a gathering of the Economic Council of the Christian Democratic Union in Berlin. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was supposed to attend this week’s Economic Council of the Christian Democratic Union meeting in Berlin, but suddenly canceled his travel plans on Tuesday. Ross was scheduled to give an address at the conference immediately before German chancellor Angela Merkel, so he instead gave his remarks by teleconference from Washington.
Ross was allotted 10 minutes to speak. After speaking for more than 20, the conference organizers cut his feed mid-sentence. The audience “laughed and clapped” in response, according to Bloomberg. Merkel then rose and, during her remarks, disagreed with one of Ross’s points.
The relationship between President Trump and Merkel has been strained since his inauguration. His repeated insistence that Germany owes money to NATO and his unusual reticence to embrace that alliance has been one point of friction. His disparagement of Germany as “very bad” in a closed-door meeting was another. That claim centered on what Trump (and Ross) viewed as a trade disparity between the two countries and was the point with which Merkel took issue.
In most other contexts, a laughing reaction from a small group of America’s economic and geopolitical allies would be odd but not particularly noteworthy. In the context of the Trump administration, though, it’s telling.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric repeatedly centered on the idea that America was being laughed at internationally. His evidence for this claim was lacking, but it was a point he raised repeatedly.
During his campaign launch, he said Mexico was “laughing … at our stupidity” on the border. In a speech before the Iowa caucuses, Trump claimed that the Islamic State was laughing at our leaders, a claim he repeated in a March debate. The whole world was laughing at us because of Barack Obama, he said in an interview in May of 2016 — and in speeches in June and October. As Election Day approached, he made the claim over and over.
When he announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord last month, Trump claimed that it was necessary because we’d gotten a bad deal — so bad that we were being laughed at.
“The Paris agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense. … The same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and, in many cases, lax contributions to our critical military alliance,” he said. “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We want fair treatment for its citizens, and we want fair treatment for our taxpayers. We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be. They won’t be.”
On Tuesday, The Post highlighted new survey data from the Pew Research Center showing that perceptions of America and our president have decreased substantially in most parts of the world following Trump’s election. That includes Germany — a country to which Trump was pointedly referring in his Paris remarks and where Trump’s commerce secretary was laughed at literally.
Views of the American people have held fairly constant over the years among Germans, Pew’s polling revealed. But views of our government and president slipped during the George W. Bush administration, rose under Barack Obama — and then collapsed this year.
German confidence in the American president followed the same pattern. Last year, 86 percent of Germans had a lot of or at least some confidence in America’s president. This year, more than half have none at all.
It’s easy to read too much into the reaction Ross prompted this week. But as a symbol of the relationship between the two countries at the moment, it’s hard not to — particularly given how often other countries’ laughter was raised by Trump as something we should be concerned about.