Donald Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker: It’s a pairing that’s weird, but somehow it seems to be a hit.
The U.S. president has burned through transatlantic relationships like a wildfire through a parched forest. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was scorn at first sight. With French President Emmanuel Macron, there was an initial buddy-buddy routine — built on macho handshakes and fancy dinners with their wives — that has since collapsed into nasty tweetsplaining and manspreading. With U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, it was more like a series of tortured dates between a pair whose families insisted they should have a special spark but don’t.
What’s left — or rather who’s left — is Jean-Claude Juncker, the quirky Luxembourgish president of the European Commission.
Their acquaintanceship, however strange, is in the spotlight again as world leaders gather in Buenos Aires for the annual G20 summit.
It is a relationship in which Trump — rather approvingly — has called Juncker a “brutal killer” and also a “great businessman” even though Juncker, who is a trained lawyer, never even used his degree in law practice, and instead spent his entire life in politics. And yet, officials in Brussels and Washington say their acquaintances-with-benefits arrangement — calling it friendship would be taking it too far — put at least a temporary halt to an escalating trade war between two huge powers that could have sent the global economy into a tailspin.
“Donald Trump is the only one who has properly understood the constitutional system of the European Union but he is 10 year ahead of the game” — Senior EU official
Although there is no formal bilateral pow-wow between the two men scheduled in Buenos Aires, trade is the primary item on the agenda at the G20 and the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and EU are being closely watched by every world leader.
Trump’s spotlight on Juncker — however glaring — has come to the delight of many Commission officials who note that the unpredictable American has done something that the EU is still struggling to do: elevate one of its five presidents to a prominence above all of the others.
“Donald Trump is the only one who has properly understood the constitutional system of the European Union but he is 10 years ahead of the game,” one senior EU official joked. As for Trump’s curious references to Juncker as a businessman, the EU has chosen a generous interpretation. “He means somebody you can do business with,” the official said. “He has the emotional intelligence to understand when he sees somebody on the other side of the table who is impressive and he can do business with.”
It’s tempting to call them the transatlantic odd couple. But that would be an astonishing understatement.
Juncker is a polyglot internationalist; Trump a self-proclaimed nationalist who speaks only English and never much liked traveling away from home.
Trump is famously a teetotaler, while Juncker is known to enjoy more than a tipple.
Juncker is the son of a steelworker; Trump the son of a multimillionaire real estate developer.
The list doesn’t stop there.
For instance, Trump traveled by private jet long before he won access to Air Force One; Juncker flies commercial, generally Lufthansa — a fact that left Trump utterly flabbergasted when the European leader announced that he had to rush to the airport from a meeting at the White House.
“[Juncker] said, ‘I have to leave, I have to catch my plane,’” according to one official in the room. Trump was stunned. “He said, ‘What? You are flying commercial?”
“Jean-Claude, they say we hate each other” — Donald Trump
The bond between Juncker, who’s 63 and looks 80, and Trump, who’s 72 and looks 60, was forged at that meeting last summer at the White House, where Juncker arrived in a last-ditch effort to contain a trade war that the U.S. president had unleashed by slapping down tariffs on European steel and aluminum. Trump had threatened to impose even more debilitating levies on European cars, a particularly menacing prospect for the huge auto industry in Germany, the EU’s richest and most powerful member.
In the end, Trump backed down, and Juncker received plaudits for winning him over with a bit of Old World charm — planting a kiss on his cheek — and uttering words that many European leaders could not fathom ever saying aloud. When he arrived in the Oval Office, according to American and European officials who were present, Trump was watching CNN, which was describing his acrimonious relations with Europe.
“Jean-Claude, they say we hate each other,” Trump told his visitor. Juncker then put his arms around Trump and declared, “I love you, Donald.”
It was about as truthful as saying Mexico would pay for the wall, or anything else Trump might utter at a given moment, but The Donald loved it all the same. And Juncker went home a hero. Even if domestic pressure also played a role in Trump’s climbdown, Juncker was able to claim that he had persuaded Trump to forestall further tariffs in favor of lengthy negotiations, and a vague promise that EU countries would buy more American soybeans.
Like a weird culinary combo — think pineapple on pizza, or chicken and waffles — somehow Trump and Juncker have found a recipe to work together.
So where Trump’s relations with other European leaders have largely broken down, officials say he and Juncker can still banter. And many officials cited the fact that trade talks have so far avoided collapse as an example of the strong effort being made by both men, as well as by a group of advisers: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström — who are the top negotiators on trade matters — and Larry Kudlow, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, and Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr, who also discuss bigger-picture politics.
Still, none of it has been easy.
Juncker has taken his share of pokes at Trump — but he has been far less shrill than other European leaders.
One former Trump administration official who has interacted with Juncker complained that the Commission president “acts erratically” and “from a staff perspective he was not easy to work with.”
That may seem a touch rich from a former adviser to the most erratic U.S. president in modern times, but hardly anyone in Brussels would disagree that Juncker can be a bit unpredictable. The Commission president can serve up a curious mixture of bonhomie and eccentricity, as when he greeted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — accused of increasingly autocratic rule — with the words “Hello dictator!” at a summit in 2015.
Juncker has also taken his share of pokes at Trump — but he has been far less shrill than other European leaders, including European Council President Donald Tusk who has taken his namesake to task repeatedly, at one point even saying, “with friends like these who needs enemies.”
Juncker has given several interviews about his meeting at the White House, especially in Germany, where his work has won heaps of praise. In one such interview, Juncker returned the “killer”-type backhanded compliments, saying that talking trade with Trump “is no fun.”
“It was a very competitive event, pretty rough from time to time, it was no fun, no entertainment,” Juncker said, adding: “But … there is no new trade war between the U.S. and Europe.”
A person familiar with the Trump-Juncker relationship said there seems to be some genuine camaraderie.
“On many levels they get along well with each other,” the person said. “They’re very straightforward with one another. They mean what they say. They say what they mean. And they genuinely like one another personally.” The person added, “If it was up to the two of them without anyone else in the room, it would go well and they would make a deal.”
“He’s hopeful that Juncker can bring some of the detractors on his side,” the person said of Trump. “France is a huge problem at these negotiations … they’re not thinking of the EU as a whole.”
Brussels or bust
Some EU officials said they are impressed that Trump finally digested and accepted that EU countries would not negotiate trade on a bilateral basis and would defer entirely to Brussels. Other senior European officials said that the White House is deluded if it thinks Juncker’s true opinion of Trump is any different to that of other European leaders, who view the American first and foremost as dangerously unpredictable, and still woefully unprepared for the enormous responsibilities of his office even after almost two years in the job.
One former Trump administration official said the relationship has evolved positively over time.
“It was a little bit more of a tense relationship when the two of them were sort of staking out their territory,” the former official said. “Trump was basically saying that the Europeans were the toughest on trade and they were the toughest to negotiate with and it was difficult to deal with. And we didn’t agree on trade and if they didn’t ease off on their regulations and their tariffs and their issues, then the president would deal with it.”
“Their relationship is colored overall by the presidency of the European Union, which [Trump] doesn’t really like” — White House official
The ex-official said Trump and Juncker both stood their ground and that led to mutual respect. “[Trump] just said their rules were tough. And he didn’t back down to the president and the president didn’t back down to him,” the ex-official said. “I think [Trump] respects people that are tough and it was one of those things where he probably says ‘Juncker is doing what he’s supposed to do for Europe and I’m doing what I’m supposed to do for the United States.’”
Still, the two men harbor very different views.
“Their relationship is colored overall by the presidency of the European Union, which [Trump] doesn’t really like,” another former White House official said. “He’s skeptical of the European Union.”
Juncker, of course, is a champion of the EU, and a wily fox of a politician who served 19 years as prime minister of Luxembourg. Trump is not the first American president that Juncker has had to endure. The transatlantic relationship, EU officials note, is never as easy as it should be — even under the best circumstances.
But officials in Brussels said they believed Juncker’s jovial, shoot-from-the-hip approach appealed to Trump and helped them develop a rapport.
“What matters is how you go about a guy like this,” a senior EU official said of Trump, “and that’s where Juncker from the very start resisted the temptation to go rogue. Of course, we had 1,000 opportunities to nail him, and we didn’t. And in a way it paid off.”