President Trump’s transparent shots at Angela Merkel over Germany’s response to the migrant crisis have backfired big-time, according to analysts.
Under intense fire for his administration’s extreme border policies, Trump has twice this week taken shots at Merkel’s government for its accommodating policy toward migrants, tweeting Monday that the influx of more than a million migrants since 2015 had created a surge of crime that was turning people against the government.
On Tuesday, he doubled down on the claim, tweeting: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted… Be smart America!” The tweet came amid widespread outcry over his zero tolerance policy that's separating families at the border.
He may have intended to weaken Merkel, but analysts say Germans are rankled by the U.S. president’s interference and rallying around their chancellor.
Merkel, who has a rocky relationship with the U.S. president, dismissed Trump’s claims Tuesday by pointing to crime statistics for 2017, released last month, showing that crime in Germany had reached its lowest level in 25 years.
“The Interior Ministry recently released the criminal statistics, and they speak for themselves,” she said. “We’re seeing small, positive developments, and we must of course continue to do more on the fight against crime.”
Trump’s attacks come at a trying time for Merkel, as she faces an ultimatum from hard-liners within her conservative bloc to toughen up the country’s asylum rules, or face a potentially catastrophic split in her governing coalition.
But analysts say the unwelcome comments from Trump, who a Pew Research Center survey released in February found only 11 percent of Germans had confidence in, has rallied support behind the embattled Merkel.
“Donald Trump is very unpopular in Germany, and any intervention he makes into domestic politics is not received well,” Nina Schick, director at political consultancy firm Rasmussen Global, told VICE News. “Whenever Trump comes out and attacks Merkel, you see German citizens rallying around her… There’s a strong feeling of outrage – ‘How dare you!’”
Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that the response from Germany’s political class had been one of “indignation” at what was seen as an attempt to weaken Merkel’s standing in order to improve the U.S’s position in trade and defense negotiations with Germany.
“It is seen as interfering in German politics with the attempt to weaken the Chancellor and to encourage the opposition against her from the far right,” he said. “The political elite sees this as an attempt to improve the terms for extracting concessions from Germany on trade and defense spending.”
While the comments would likely add fuel to the fire of the growing right-wing, anti-migrant minority in Germany, within Merkel’s own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, Trump’s comments would inspire solidarity with the chancellor, “which should strengthen Merkel to some degree,” he said.
However, he believed the episode was unlikely to have any bearing on Merkel’s most pressing political headache, the standoff with junior coalition partner the Christian Social Union (CSU) over asylum policy which has engulfed her governing coalition in crisis. Merkel’s hard-line Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, has demanded that Germany start turning back asylum seekers at the border who have already been registered in other European Union countries – a move Merkel has refused to accept, as she instead seeks to reach a common agreement with other E.U. leaders to resolve the issue.
“That is Merkel’s most important conflict, which she will have to handle over the next two weeks to prevent a coalition breakdown,” said Janning.
While Trump’s claims that crime in Germany was “way up” have been widely refuted by the 2017 crime statistics, the link between immigration and crime has become an issue of growing political concern in Germany, following terror attacks and a series of high-profile murders and sexual assaults committed by migrant men. While the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party has been the main beneficiary of public anxiety over the issue, rising to 15 percent in a recent poll by German broadcaster RTL, mainstream media and moderate politicians have also started raising concerns about the links between immigration and crime.
A German government–funded report from January – which may be the source of the statistic cited by Trump on Tuesday – showed violent crime rose 10 percent between 2015 and 2016 in the state of Lower Saxony, with researchers attributing 90 percent of the increase to young male migrants. The research said the findings were not surprising because many migrants were single males aged 14-30, the demographic most inclined to crime, regardless of nationality.
“Germans see that there is a link, and the statistics showing these trends have been published by the government,” said Janning. But he said that data suggested it was “not primarily the asylum seeker or refugee population that is more engaged in criminal activities, but the non-German population at large,” pointing to official statistics that showed that people without German citizenship were suspects in nearly 35 percent of criminal charges in Germany last year.
Trump’s comments this week were not the first time he has exaggerated migrant crime in Germany; in 2016 he said that “massive immigration” had been a “disaster” for Germany, driving crime rates to “levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see.” The most recent crime figures at the time showed that the crime rate per capita had actually dropped over the preceding year.