President Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet at White House, talk NATO

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WASHINGTON —┬áPresident Donald Trump Friday knocked NATO nations who do not pay their “fair share” for their defense, as he stood side-by-side with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He said that many nations owe “vast sums” of money in unpaid dues to the organization.

“These nations must pay what they owe,” Trump said during the joint news conference between the two leaders.

The President, however, also expressed strong support for the NATO alliance after raising questions about its utility and relevance during his election campaign.

The German government fell well short of its NATO target of 2% last year, hitting 1.19%. Though it has committed to boosting defense spending this year, Germany will still fall short again.

Trump also said that the US would respect “historic institutions” in what may have been a reference to the European Union, which has always been seen by the US as a bulwark of Western security but about which senior figures in Trump’s government have expressed skepticism.

In her remarks, Merkel also referred to past tensions with Trump, as she seeks to build a new relationship with the third US president she has encountered as German Chancellor.

“It’s always much better to talk to one another than about one another,” she said.

She also said she was glad to hear Trump’s support for NATO and said that Trump had committed to the Minsk process, designed to monitor a ceasefire in Ukraine and look toward an eventual solution to the crisis.

The news conference comes as the President stands isolated in Washington as leaders of the top Capitol Hill intelligence committees reject his unproven claims that former President Barack Obama ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower last year.

The fact that Trump could face questions about wiretapping is deeply ironic. After all, Merkel is a leader whose phone was tapped — by the United States, under and a National Security Agency program that was exposed by Edward Snowden and cancelled by Obama following a deep diplomatic embarrassment.

Merkel also grew up in East Germany, where many ordinary people were victims of a phone tapping and surveillance program perpetrated by the communist regime’s Stasi secret police so she is deeply sensitive to such issues.

Apart from the domestic political storms that are battering the White House, the news conference and Merkel’s visit to the White House are coming at a crucial moment for US-German relations.

The German Chancellor is trying to forge a relationship with Trump despite suspicion over his political views. She congratulated the President after his election win in a statement that also contained a defense of Western values — amid concern in Germany that his stances on issues like immigration run counter to the principles that have sustained the Western alliance.

Germany, the most powerful political force in the European Union, has also been deeply concerned by Trump criticisms of NATO and deep skepticism inside the White House about the EU itself.

Friday’s meeting will attempt to stir some personal chemistry between two leaders who seem far removed in temperament and instinct.

Merkel, who takes a cautious, analytical approach to politics, was also one of the few world leaders who appeared to forge a deep connection with Obama, with whom she was something of a kindred spirit.

Trump is more outspoken and improvisational and has little time for diplomatic niceties. He has, for example, heavily criticized Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, a move that is a key issue in her re-election race this year.

But both sides are likely to try to move on from past tensions. The pragmatic Merkel is now on her third US president and appears to be looking to find a way to forge a relationship with Trump without buying into his political values.

Another administration official said before the meeting that the President hoped to get Merkel’s advice for dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, according to US intelligence, ordered cyber-meddling in last year’s presidential election and tried to help Trump.

Merkel hoped to appeal to the President’s focus on business, bringing with her to Washington the chief executives of Siemens and BMW with her to Washington.

The two companies employ thousands of American workers, a point Merkel hopes will come through when the pair get to discussing trade issues — including Germany’s trade surplus, which has rankled the Trump camp.