President Trump declared a much-disputed victory at the annual NATO summit Thursday, after throwing it into crisis by forcing an emergency session suggesting the United States could leave the nearly 70-year-old alliance and then suddenly dropping his demands that allies immediately spend more on their militaries.
After claiming success in Brussels at an impromptu news conference, Trump flew to London — but not before setting a time bomb ahead of his meetings with an embattled Prime Minister Theresa May.
In an interview with a British tabloid before boarding his plane, Trump attacked May, touted her rival Boris Johnson as a “great prime minister” and said immigration had cost Europe its culture.
“I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was, and I don’t mean that in a positive way,” Trump told the Sun, a tabloid owned by his sometime ally Rupert Murdoch. “Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame.”
His remarks, in which he said May had mishandled negotiations over Brexit, the planned British exit from the European Union, seemed certain to fuel a growing revolt against her within her Conservative Party. Johnson, who resigned earlier this week from the job of Foreign Minister, has been weighing a challenge to May over her handling of the Brexit talks.
The comments — an extraordinary intervention by a U.S. president in an allied country’s politics – came after a NATO summit dominated by Trump’s demands that the 28 other member nations increase their spending on defense, in fairness to the United States.
At the news conference, Trump insisted they had agreed, saying, “They’re going to up it at levels that they’ve never thought of before.”
Other leaders, however, denied that they’d made any significantly new pledges beyond what they’d agreed to in 2014, under some pressure from President Obama. “No increase in spending,” Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said of his country’s military budget.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in his own closing news conference, said NATO members generally had made no new commitments. He also said that Trump “never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from NATO.”
Trump’s self-generated controversies in two European capitals in a single day captured more than any episode to date his unabashedly disruptive style. One influential British publication recently depicted him as riding the globe like a wrecking ball.
Trump’s diplomatic tour will end Monday in Helsinki, Finland, with perhaps his most fraught encounter: his first official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The diplomatic confusion Trump caused among NATO allies left them more uncertain than before of the United States’ commitment and apprehensive about his get-together with Putin. At NATO’s close, he cast himself as a savior, yet it was a crisis of his own making that distracted from an agenda focused on Russia, cybersecurity and antiterrorism.
In Brussels, the president’s truculent, turbulent presence had left some wearied Atlanticists beaten down, said Damon Wilson, president of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “Whiplash,” he tweeted, summing up the experience for allies and observers as Trump toggled between harsh criticism and warm praise.
Trump, in declaring victory and agreeing to sign a closing declaration that emphasized joint defense against Russia, nonetheless avoided creating the degree of chaos that he generated at last month’s summit of the Group of 7 industrialized powers in Canada. There, as he flew off, he tweeted his withdrawal from the summit’s final statement and hurled insults at host Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, for his perceived slights.
After arriving in London, where a number of anti-Trump protests were underway, the president attended a black-tie dinner on the eve of his meetings with May on Friday — just before the Sun released its interview. He also will have tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle before spending the weekend at his golf property in Scotland and preparing for the Putin meeting.
His interview remarks, some of which Trump had previewed at his Brussels news conference, were certain to cloud his diplomacy with May.
Trump told the tabloid that May had mishandled Brexit — “I actually told Theresa May how do to it, but she didn’t listen to me” — and that her plan for it “is a much different deal than the one the people voted on.”
The president added that she’d probably ended chances for a new trade deal with the U.S. as well. Her plan, he said, “will definitely affect trade with the United States, unfortunately in a negative way.”
Trump also renewed a war of words with London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, blaming him as he did last year for terrorist incidents in London, crime and other “horrible things” in the city. “He has done a terrible job,” Trump said.
News of the interview at day’s end came after allies and U.S. lawmakers were still absorbing the earlier developments at NATO.
In Brussels, Trump said that the NATO members committed to meet the already agreed-to goal of allocating an amount equal to 2% of each nation’s gross domestic product toward defense spending and that he would like to see the benchmark raised eventually to 4%.
“Yesterday, I let them know I was extremely unhappy with what was happening. And now we’re very happy. We have a very powerful, very strong NATO — much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said at the 35-minute news conference here.
“After 2%, we’ll start talking about going higher,” Trump said.
The comments marked a major rhetorical reversal from Trump, who on Wednesday dismissed NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s assertions about the increased military budgets that members already have achieved in the last four years. The president had called those increases insufficient.
Stoltenberg, at the close, continued to try to keep the peace by giving Trump some credit. “There is a new sense of urgency due to President Trump’s strong leadership on defense spending,” he said.
In 2014, NATO members gave themselves until 2024 to meet the 2% threshold. Stoltenberg and others rejected Trump’s idea of hitting 4% — an unrealistic goal for many countries. The United States, with its global security commitments, spends 3.5% of its GDP on the military.
Trump, whose spending demands and antagonistic remarks about Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel at Wednesday’s summit opening already had strained relationships with longtime allies, remarked on the “great collegial spirit” among allies as the tumultuous summit concluded.
He also asserted that Russia, whose recent aggressions in Europe have given the defensive alliance renewed purpose, would be further constrained by more robust NATO spending.
“I don’t think that’s helping Russia,” he said, reflecting his defensiveness amid an ongoing criminal investigation into that nation’s interference in the 2016 election and possible complicity by the Trump campaign.
Trump did not say whether he explicitly threatened to leave NATO should the other nations not increase their spending, only saying, “I told people that I’d be very unhappy.”
He did, however, claim that he had the right to make such a move without the approval of Congress — an assertion certain to unnerve allies as well as American lawmakers overwhelmingly supportive of NATO.
“I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary,” he said.
A day after tweeting “What good is NATO?” Trump spoke in his most glowing terms ever about the alliance, a pillar of the post-World War II democratic order and one that as a presidential candidate he repeatedly called “obsolete.”
“I believe in NATO,” Trump said. “I think NATO is very important — probably the greatest ever done.”
Taking numerous questions from the international press corps, Trump offered a preview of his meeting with Putin, whom he described as “a competitor.” He deflected a question about whether he would rebuke Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea, which NATO holds as “illegal,” again blaming Obama for allowing it to happen. Recently Trump had suggested he might acquiesce in Russia’s annexation.
Trump did say he would raise Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, but was prepared for Putin to deny such activities. “I can only say, ‘Did you?’ and, ‘Don’t do it again,’ ”he said
Trump continued to falsely describe how NATO is financed, saying the U.S. pays for 90% of it. He conflated each member-nation’s military spending with their much smaller contributions to the alliance’s administration, on which all members are current, according to NATO.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate voted overwhelmingly this week to express support of NATO, in implicit if mild rebuke of Trump. Two senators were also on hand in Brussels, but struggled before a European audience to give reassurance of America’s unwavering commitment.
“Believe me, ladies and gentleman, there is no doubt in the U.S. Congress’ commitment to NATO,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “We’ve got your backs.”
In a series of tweets, an ailing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump’s NATO “performance” and his softness toward Putin.
The president’s “misstatements and bluster,” McCain wrote, “are the words of one man. Americans and their Congress still believe in the transatlantic alliance.” He ridiculed Trump’s description of Putin as a competitor, saying, “Putin is our enemy” because he chose to be — by invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, slaughtering Syrians and attacking U.S. elections and democracies worldwide.
Despite their frustrations with Trump’s style, many European leaders seemed to recognize his main point of leverage: their continent’s continued reliance on the U.S. for its defense.
“Nobody in Europe really thinks that we can make our own security without NATO,” said Paolo Alli, the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “We have lived for a number of years under the security umbrella of the U.S.”
Trump’s demands are “real,” Alli said. “We must comply with this.”