President Biden hosted Angela Merkel at the White House on Thursday, a working visit that allowed him to shore up a diplomatic relationship that had frayed during the Trump era — even as both acknowledged that significant differences remain in their policies toward Russia.
During a 50-minute meeting at the White House, Mr. Biden’s agenda items with the outgoing German chancellor included several of his most pressing geopolitical priorities, including restraining Chinese influence, curbing Russian aggression and waiving intellectual property restrictions on coronavirus vaccine manufacturers.
In a news conference in the East Room after the meeting, Mr. Biden said he broached the contentious issue of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a natural gas conduit being built between Germany and Russia, a project that Mr. Biden and his predecessors have assailed as little more than a coercive tool against Ukraine and other allies.
“Good friends can disagree,” he said of the project.
Mr. Biden conceded that Ms. Merkel had not changed her thinking on the Russian pipeline, “While I reiterated my concerns about Nord Stream 2,” Mr. Biden said, the pair were “united in our conviction that Russia should not be able to use energy as a weapon.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Biden waived congressional sanctions on the Russian company building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and its German chief executive, effectively conceding that an effort to halt the project, which is expected to be complete by the end of this year, was not worth the expected cost to U.S.-German relations.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Merkel repeatedly emphasized their personal relationship in their public appearances, a sharp divergence from the German leader’s chilly and stilted interactions with former President Donald J. Trump who maligned her as “captive to Russia.”
Ms. Merkel referred to the Mr. Biden as “dear Joe” no fewer than three times during their news conference, opening her remarks by declaring, “We are not only partners, but we are very close friends.”
Mr. Biden began the event by offering his condolences to the German people for the loss of life and property caused by recent floods, and went on to thank the chancellor for “an exemplary life of groundbreaking service to Germany” and for her work with four U.S. presidents.
For the president, the point of trip was to affirm that the United States and Germany, along with a host of European allies, are aligned and friendly after Mr. Trump’s term. Mr. Biden has taken pains to stress that the U.S.-German relationship has entered a more stable era, but the trip clarified that Mr. Trump’s departure had not fundamentally changed the nature of some of their deepest policy rifts.
Ms. Merkel’s visit was also a diplomatic victory lap of sorts, before her term expires later this year.
She started her day with a cheese souffle breakfast at Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence. “I can only say that I’m delighted too for this opportunity here to meet the first Madam Vice President of the United States of America,” Ms. Merkel said through a translator.
Later, Ms. Merkel received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, adding to the collection of degrees bestowed to her from Harvard and Stanford. She and Mr. Biden, who she has known since his time in the Senate, exchanged kind sentiments while sitting in adjacent chairs in the Oval Office.
“I consider her to be a personal friend as well as a great friend of the United States,” said Mr. Biden, addressing reporters before their first meeting.
“I’d like to say here how much I value the friendship with the United States of America,” Ms. Merkel said.
The exchange wasn’t overly warm, but it was leagues more collegial than Ms. Merkel’s past meetings with a president in the Oval Office, including a 2017 exchange with Mr. Trump when Ms. Merkel asked “Do you want to have a handshake?” Mr. Trump apparently did not.
Just as Ms. Merkel spent years responding mildly to Mr. Trump, she has not been overeager to accept Mr. Biden’s entreaties. During a virtual edition of the Munich Security Conference held earlier this year, she said of the U.S. relationship that “our interests will not always converge.”
It was in part a reference to Mr. Biden’s interest in tamping down Beijing’s rising influence. Ms. Merkel has historically been receptive to working with China, Germany’s most important trading partner.
After the news conference, Ms. Merkel was scheduled to attend a going-away dinner of sorts with longtime allies, including Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presidential candidate.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, was also scheduled to attend, fresh from a trip earlier in the day to see Mr. Trump at his golf club in New Jersey.