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In Germany, questions swirl after Pompeo cancels Berlin meeting

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps off his plane upon arrival in Rovaniemi, Finland, Monday, May 6, 2019. Pompeo was due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on Tuesday but canceled because of "pressing issues."

MANDEL NGAN/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

By RICK NOACK AND SIOBHÁN O'GRADY | The Washington Post | Published: May 7, 2019

BERLIN — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on Tuesday.

But at the last minute, the State Department canceled the visit, blaming "pressing issues."

"We look forward to rescheduling this important set of meetings," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. "The secretary looks forward to being in Berlin soon."

Maas spoke with Pompeo by phone, the Associated Press reported, and they plan to reschedule the meeting.

A day earlier, Pompeo attended a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, where he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines. Russian state media said Tuesday that Pompeo and Lavrov plan to meet again next week in Sochi.

This week, tensions rose between Iran and the United States after Washington expressed concern about alleged threats against U.S. troops from Iran, and Tehran indicated it may no longer abide by all the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers. The United States withdrew from the deal last year, but Germany and other European allies still back it. This week, the Pentagon sent a U.S. aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf.

It wasn't clear whether the tensions with Iran could have contributed to the Berlin meeting's cancellation.

Although some in Germany viewed the cancellation as yet more evidence of a transatlantic relationship in free fall, official reaction was diplomatic, with the head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen, calling the change of plans "very regrettable."

But even he noted that the cancellation came at a bad time for German-U. S. relations.

"Even if there were unavoidable reasons for the cancellation, it unfortunately fits into the current climate in the relationship of the two governments," he told German media.

Commentators across the political spectrum were even more explicit. The center-right daily Die Welt noted that the explanation provided for the sudden cancellation was "fuzzy." German broadcaster N-TV noted that the stakes for the visit had been high and that it had been anticipated "with suspense."

Its center-left competitor, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, saw broader, underlying problems in the cancellation.

"The German-U. S. friendship lies in ruins," a headline on the newspaper's website read.

"The way U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo abruptly canceled his trip to Berlin is difficult to excuse," one of the newspaper's journalists said. "Berlin has to come up with a strategy for the time after the Trump era."

Merkel's government has clashed with Washington on key issues since President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Trump has frequently lashed out at Germany over its defense spending, which - like many other member states - does not meet its NATO obligations. The obligations state that each member should spend 2 percent of its GDP on its military, but Germany is expected to have a 1.2 percent ratio this year.

Merkel, the former leader of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union, and Trump have diverged widely on several major issues. The German leader has a more liberal approach toward immigration, free trade and action on climate change. Many believe she ran for reelection in 2017 in response to Trump's 2016 win.

And relations between them appeared frosty from the start, even if officials denied that was the case.

As The Washington Post reported last year, Trump's critical remarks about Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May have raised questions about his attitudes toward women in power. Two European officials told The Post at the time that Trump seemed to have a particular problem with May and Merkel.

At the time, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders denied that the relationship with Merkel was negative, pointing out that on a trip to Brussels, Trump had given the German chancellor "a huge hug, kissed both her cheeks and announced to everyone that he loves her."

Since then, amid domestic woes and German companies' fears of an escalation of U.S. trade threats, the chancellor has pursued a more cautious approach to Washington - disappointing those who had hoped she would emerge as a forceful counter-voice to Trump.

Before the visit's cancellation, the German government's coordinator for transatlantic relations had told the TV network Phoenix that the visit was a "very good sign."

"The list of topics that will have to be discussed . . . is long," said Peter Beyer, a member of parliament from Merkel's CDU party.

Now, those discussions will have to wait.

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