BERLIN -- German carmakers found themselves at the receiving end of renewed attacks by President Donald Trump, who reportedly chided them for selling too many vehicles in the U.S., contributing to a lopsided German trade surplus that's hurting the U.S. economy.
"The Germans are bad, very bad," Trump told EU officials in a closed-door meeting, Der Spiegel reported, citing unidentified attendees. "Look at the millions of cars that they sell in the U.S. Terrible. We're going to stop that."
Trump's top economic adviser acknowledged that the president said Germany is "very bad" when it comes to flooding the U.S. with cars, but insisted it wasn't a dig at one of the U.S.'s most-important allies.
"He said, 'They're very bad on trade,' but he doesn't have a problem with Germany," Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, said. "He said his dad is from Germany. He said, 'I don't have a problem with Germany, I have a problem with German trade'."
Trump has repeatedly criticized Germany's high trade surplus with the U.S. In a Bild newspaper interview in January, he threatened BMW with a 35 percent import duty for foreign-built cars sold in the country.
"If you go down Fifth Avenue everyone has a Mercedes-Benz in front of his house," he told Bild, while lamenting the lack of Chevrolets in Germany. General Motors has withdrawn the brand from Europe for some years.
German carmakers such as Daimler, Volkswagen Group and BMW have responded to the attacks with a mix of defiance and mollification. BMW CEO Harald Krueger, one of a small group of business leaders to accompany German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her first trip to visit Trump at the White House, has defended the importance of free trade and noted that BMW's biggest plant worldwide is in Spartanburg, South Carolina -- making the manufacturer the biggest exporter on a net basis from the U.S.
Representatives at Volkswagen and Daimler declined to comment on the remarks reported by Der Spiegel. A BMW spokesman wasn't immediately available.
The German trade surplus rose to a record 253 billion euros ($284 billion) last year, and the U.S. trade deficit widened in January to the most since March 2012.
In addition to drawing Trump's ire, the German imbalance has sparked criticism by European Union leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron.
Merkel hit back later on Friday, saying that she had made clear to Trump that the German trade surplus with the U.S. "is a result of the good quality of our products."
"To single out one country for attack is, I think, not so appropriate," she told reporters. "We agreed with the U.S. that we'll go over the details of the trade question intensively once more."
"Germany's position on the issue of trade balances and surpluses is well known," German government spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters in Berlin. "A surplus is neither good nor evil. It's the result of supply and demand."