President Trump upended the show of unity at NATO’s annual summit on Wednesday as many allies had feared, claiming that Germany "is totally controlled by" and "captive to Russia" and inflating his demands that they spend more on defense to an unrealistic level.
The president’s comments in Brussels, especially his harsh and unexpected attack on Germany, Europe’s leading power, overshadowed the alliance’s ostensible business and undercut its ultimate summit declaration of NATO allies’ commitment to shared values and a joint defense against Russian aggression.
His attack on Germany as beholden to Russia, because of a pipeline project, was in keeping with Trump’s practice of accusing others of behavior he has been accused of. It comes after he irked allies last month by suggesting that Russia should be readmitted to the Group of 7 alliance of industrialized democracies.
Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, a get-together that has U.S. allies apprehensive given his frequent warm words for the autocrat.
The president’s posture toward close allies has been increasingly and remarkably confrontational this year, especially in comparison to his more conciliatory approach to adversaries, including Russia and North Korea. Even as he flew to Brussels, Trump continued his attacks on NATO allies for not spending more on defense, and after hours of meetings on Wednesday he reiterated his disdain in a tweet that began, “What good is NATO…?”
As his latest remarks filtered back to the United States, even some Republican congressional leaders criticized the president for his slams against Germany and other allies, though others defended him.
Among Democrats, former Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Trump’s statements “disgraceful, destructive,” and the party’s congressional leaders — Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi — in a joint statement said the president’s comments were an “embarrassment” and “another profoundly disturbing signal that the President is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies.”
In closed-door summit meetings , Trump significantly increased his previous demands for NATO allies’ defense spending, saying each of the 29 member nations should budget an amount equal to 4% of their economies as measured by their gross domestic product — up from 2%.
While NATO in 2014 set the goal that each nation reach the 2% level by 2024, Trump told allies to do so immediately. Doubling that, which allies reject, would require that the U.S. — now at 3.5% of GDP — increase its military spending as well.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who throughout the day emphasized the steady increases in member nations’ military spending in recent years, giving Trump some credit, later told reporters that the alliance would focus on meeting its current goal.
Stoltenberg has strived to maintain good relations with Trump, but his calm demeanor at a news conference at day’s end could not dispel the palpable tension caused by an American president who gives short shrift to longtime alliances. White House aides privately acknowledged that Trump’s posture reflected his transactional approach, and was intended to create leverage on trade issues as well as security.
Though Trump had been expected to shake things up in Brussels, especially after he’d broken with allies last month at the G-7 summit in Canada, his performance still was something of a shock that drew widespread criticism.
Nicholas Burns, who was the U.S. ambassador to NATO on Sept. 11, 2001, after which the alliance voted to come to the aid of the United States, said, "Our big strategic advantage over Russia is we have these big alliance systems and they don't. That's a very big part of America's influence in the world and the president doesn't see that, because he's so narrowly focused on trade disputes.”
"He's making a major mistake if he keeps this up,” Burns added. “It's taking on the vestiges of a vendetta. When you go out at the start of the summit and set a tone that looks so anti-German and looks like it's aimed at weakening [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, it looks malicious."
Following the meetings at the sprawling, glass-enclosed NATO campus on the outskirts of Belgium’s capital, Trump’s secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, took to Twitter for damage control.
NATO, he tweeted, “is the most successful alliance in history. All #NATO allies have committed to extending this success through increased defense spending, deterrence and defense, and fighting terrorism. Weakness provokes; strength and cohesion protects. This remains our bedrock belief."
Adding to the unease is anticipation of Trump's upcoming meeting with Putin. Amid speculation that Trump would acquiesce in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Stoltenberg dodged a reporter’s question about whether the president had given any assurances that he would stand by NATO's position that the action was illegal.
Critics and even some supporters say that while Trump has grounds to complain, as past presidents have, that NATO allies are taking advantage of the United States, he fails to recognize the alliance’s value to the country.
"'America First' has been his mantra. What Trump doesn't understand is, the United States cannot defend itself without its assets and bases on foreign soil," said Frank Rose, a former Defense and State official in Republican and Democratic administrations.
"That radar in Denmark is not there to defend the Danes. It is defending us," Rose continued.
At a breakfast with Stoltenberg before the summit, Trump redirected a question about his looming meeting with Putin by suggesting that a natural gas pipeline project has made Germany subservient to Russia. He apparently was referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would dramatically increase the amount of gas Russia is able to export directly to Germany.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” Trump said. “You tell me if that’s appropriate, because I think it’s not.”
Merkel delivered a public retort upon arriving at the summit. The chancellor, who grew up during the Cold War years in the former East Germany, under the Soviet Union’s control, archly stated that she didn't need to be lectured about dealing with authoritarian regimes.
"I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”
When the two leaders met privately later, they spoke about the pipeline as well as other issues, Trump said. But in their brief remarks to reporters he only flattered Merkel about Germany’s economic gains.
French President Emmanuel Macron, asked by a reporter following his short meeting with Trump if he agreed that Germany is captive to Russia, said flatly that he did not, as Trump sat alongside him.
As is often the case with Trump, his criticism of the pipeline project contains a measure of truth within his distortions and misrepresentations.
Germany isn’t “captive” because the pipeline isn’t finished, though U.S. and Eastern European countries have long worried that Germany could become more dependent on it over time. Russia in the past has manipulated gas supplies to threaten Ukraine.
Ukrainians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans worry that Western Europe could become less willing to protect them if Russia has a bigger role as an energy supplier. However, defenders of the pipeline have long argued that Russia, whose economy depends heavily on energy sales, will become less confrontational with the West if its prosperity becomes more intertwined with the rest of Europe.
The pipeline has also been backed by German environmentalists because increased use of natural gas has allowed the country to phase out coal and reduce its dependence on nuclear power.
"This pipeline, there are real questions about getting too dependent on Russia — that's not an illegitimate question to ask," said Robert Jervis, a professor of international relations at Columbia University.
“The problem is then he doesn't have the attention span to sit still for the discussion or contemplation of the question itself."
A commercial element could be at play in Trump’s complaint: If Germany imported less gas from Russia, it might import liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
Merkel has had her own criticisms of the pipeline, although she has not stopped it. The project was pushed by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who had warm relations with Putin and signed the deal in 2005, just days after Merkel’s party beat him in German elections. Schroeder has gone on to have extensive business dealings with Russia.
Even before Trump's morning blast , allied leaders were nervous about the American president's ambivalence toward NATO and his repeated demands that they increase their share of military spending.
They weren’t alone. On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 97 to 2 in favor of a resolution in support of NATO and the House did so unanimously on Wednesday. “NATO is indispensable,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that Trump “can be a little too critical of the other counterparts, and I don't think he should be critical."
The president continued to hammer his complaints about NATO countries’ military expenditures at the breakfast, stating that the situation is "not fair" to American taxpayers. "But we will make it fair," he said.
Trump singled out Germany for complaint, and Merkel, in her comments upon arriving, took issue with that criticism as well.
“Germany does a lot for NATO,” she said. “Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan. In that we also defend the interests of the United States.”
Trump's repeated complaints have swayed some Americans against the alliance that has guarded the transatlantic democratic order for nearly 70 years. Backing for NATO has declined among Trump’s supporters, polls show.
While Trump spoke again of NATO countries being delinquent and owing the United States, their defense spending has nothing to do with payments to NATO or the U.S. All NATO members are current on their actual contributions to the alliance.
Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.