Trump says NATO nations make major new defense spending commitments after he upends summit

Trump says NATO nations make major new defense spending commitments after he upends summit

 President Trump reaffirmed U.S. support for NATO on Thursday, after he upended a summit here to admonish leaders and demand that they quickly increase their defense spending.

BRUSSELS — President Trump reaffirmed U.S. support for NATO on Thursday, after he upended a summit here to admonish leaders and demand that they quickly increase their defense spending.

Trump’s ambush jolted the transatlantic alliance, and some diplomats perceived his comments as threatening a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. But Trump later declared in a news conference, “I believe in NATO,” and, as he prepared to depart Brussels, he reiterated that the United States is committed to its Western allies.

“I told people that I’d be very unhappy if they did not up their commitments very substantially,” Trump told reporters after the meeting. “Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment. They are going to up it at levels never thought of before.”

NATO member nations committed in 2014 to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. It was not immediately clear what specific new commitments had been made. Trump said that leaders responded to his demands by agreeing to reach that goal soon.

“Ultimately, that will be going up quite a bit higher than that,” Trump said at the news conference, after privately calling Wednesday on leaders to double their commitments to 4 percent of gross domestic product.

Trump’s focus on defense spending rocked the NATO summit on its final day. He used a morning meeting to discuss Georgia and Ukraine, two countries with tense relations with Russia to trumpet his spending concerns and rail against European countries, including Germany and Spain, for failing to contribute more to their defenses and for relying too heavily on the largesse of the United States. The moment sent “everyone into a tailspin,” according to one diplomat briefed on the morning’s events. Trump came armed with facts and figures, and it appeared to be a well-planned attack.

In the closed-door session, Trump told his counterparts that if they did not meet their defense spending targets of 2 percent of gross domestic product by January, the United States would go it alone, according to two officials briefed on the meeting. The officials said Trump threatened to “do his own thing.” The comments appeared open to interpretation, and some officials said they never felt Trump was threatening a full pullout from NATO.

Another official who was in the room said that Trump read out the spending figures for every single NATO nation, sometimes telling leaders: “My friend, you’re so nice to me. I’m sorry you’re spending so little.”

Trump then held an impromptu news conference, where he was asked whether he could withdraw the United States from NATO without congressional approval. The president replied, “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary.” He added: “The people have stepped up today” as they never have before. “Everyone in the room thanked me. There was a great collegial spirit in that room. . . . Very unified, very strong. No problem.”

Trump went on to call NATO “a fine-tuned machine,” a phrase he has used to describe his often-chaotic administration, and said that “NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago.”

When he was asked by a reporter whether he would change his tune about NATO once he boarded Air Force One and got on Twitter — a reference to his turnaround after a Group of Seven summit in Canada last month — Trump said he would not and called himself a “very stable genius.”

Trump said Germany agreed to accelerate its defense spending increases. He also pointed to what he said were $33 billion in NATO defense spending increases this year as evidence that his push was having an effect. He also said inaccurately that NATO nations had been decreasing their spending until he was elected. In fact, they began their spending increases following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although they have accelerated in response to Trump’s push.

“They are spending at a much faster clip; they are going up to the 2 percent level,” Trump said. He said leaders committed to go to their parliaments to obtain the spending increases. He said the increase would happen in “a very short number of years.”

The official who was in the room said Merkel committed to meeting the NATO goal of 2 percent spending by 2024 — an increase from Germany’s current plan of 1.5 percent by that date. Leaders explained to Trump they could not make firm commitments inside the closed session, since most of them needed parliamentary consent to expand budgets.

In a news conference after the meeting, Merkel did not publicly announce any new pledges, but said “there was a clear commitment to NATO by all.”

She said that the meeting was a continuation of what has been discussed for months. 

“We made clear that we’re on the way,” she said.

French President Emmanuel Macron also said that leaders agreed to live up to their current spending commitments. But he said he questioned whether Trump’s push for even higher spending goals made sense.

“I don’t even know if it is a good measure and fits our collective security,” Macron told reporters after the meeting.

Trump last week told senior aides he was going to make threats about defense spending and that he was determined to flip the table over before he left, a senior administration official said ahead of Thursday’s drama, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive summit planning. 

That tough message was transmitted clearly.

“Everyone in the room understood we would be coming to a disaster if we did not resolve this situation today,” one of the officials present for the conversation said. The official said there was fear Trump could repeat his performance at the Group of Seven summit last month, when he pulled his consent from the declaration in a fit of pique after first agreeing to it. If that happened at NATO, officials said, the alliance could be sent into a tailspin.

In his discussions with Europeans, Trump also complained about the expense of NATO’s new $1.4 billion headquarters. He noted that he knew the architect and believed NATO officials overpaid for the building, according to two officials with knowledge of the conversation.

“The discussion left many people in the room confused about what the actual position of the United States is or what the consequences would be,” said Amanda Sloat, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who was briefed by an official in the room. “His remarks were essentially a bombshell that went off and caused NATO officials to scramble to interpret what he meant.”

Throughout his presidency, Trump has railed against European allies for not paying more for the defenses. And he continued beating that drum in a pair of tweets he fired off Thursday morning from the Brussels residence where he stayed, before arriving at NATO headquarters for meetings.

“Presidents have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Germany and other rich NATO Nations to pay more toward their protection from Russia,” Trump wrote. “They pay only a fraction of their cost. The U.S. pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidize Europe, and loses Big on Trade!”

Trump wrote in a second tweet, continuing a line of attack he opened Wednesday against Germany over its reliance on a gas pipeline from Russia: “On top of it all, Germany just started paying Russia, the country they want protection from, Billions of Dollars for their Energy needs coming out of a new pipeline from Russia. Not acceptable! All NATO Nations must meet their 2% commitment, and that must ultimately go to 4%!”

At a closed-door session Wednesday with NATO leaders, Trump called on member nations to increase their defense spending targets from 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product to 4 percent — a figure higher than what even the United States channels toward its military.

“President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Trump began his trip here by scolding allies over breakfast Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“Many countries are not paying what they should,” Trump said, seated across from a visibly rattled Stoltenberg. “And, frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them.”

Despite the tensions, Trump and other leaders held a cordial dinner Wednesday night, at which he made no mention of the tension earlier in the day. He spent part of the time bragging about the press turnout at his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying it was better than the Oscars, according to an official with knowledge of the dinner who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting. 

“He likes the ideas of their leaders being destabilized and therefore easier to manipulate for him,” said Tim O'Brien, a Trump biographer. “He is trying to make everyone look weak and doesn't understand how all the moving parts work. He sees it as a zero-sum game where the United States can call the shots.”

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