Trump heads to NATO summit as impeachment looms

President Trump
President Trump with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels in 2017.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty Images)

Awkwardness has been the hallmark of President Trump’s meetings with Western allies since he was elected three years ago on a platform that bashed existing treaties, trade deals and alliances.

He left Washington on Monday for a two-day summit at a resort in Hertfordshire, 18 miles outside London, with leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the 29-nation military alliance that has been one of his most frequent targets.

He is scheduled to return Wednesday night, hours after the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee holds its first public hearing, the next phase of the impeachment inquiry. Trump’s legal team was invited to attend but declined.

Democrats allege that Trump held up $391 million in promised security aid to Ukraine over the summer in an effort to gain Ukraine’s help for his reelection campaign.


Trump at times has suggested that he blocked the aid because European allies — the same ones he will be meeting with this week — were not doing enough to help Kyiv defend itself against Russian aggression.

That explanation came into question after a U.S. diplomat testified in an impeachment hearing last month that the European Union has spent a total of $12 billion to aid Ukraine since Russia invaded in 2014, four times as much as the United States.

Analysts don’t expect NATO allies to publicly confront Trump over Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance, during the summit.

“It will be a short meeting,” said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting Trump. “We won’t go like in a normal summit where the president has many opportunities during many sessions to kind of speak out of the box.”

The summit has a fairly limited agenda in part because allies are eager to avoid any embarrassing conflicts.

“Most of them are trying to keep their head down and let the storm pass,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.

Trump upended the 2018 summit in Brussels, insulting Germany and demanding more defense spending from other allies before leaving to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, where he publicly disputed U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.


The top agenda item this year is a celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary, which is expected to be relatively muted. Trump will also meet one-on-one with several leaders.

While in London, Trump will attend a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Administration officials announced Friday that Trump would hold bilateral meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will join a working lunch with the leaders of Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom.

Trump will also meet with the prime ministers of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, and Italy, Giuseppe Conte. The administration officials said other bilateral meetings might be added, and it was not yet clear whether Trump would speak at a news conference. They seemed to rule out a one-on-one with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan because he and Trump saw each other earlier this month at the White House.

The summit also will unveil changes to NATO’s operating budget. The United States has paid about 22% of the alliance’s $2.5 billion annual administrative budget. That will drop to about 16%, with other countries picking up the slack.

British officials had hoped the summit would showcase post-Brexit unity after Britain formally left the European Union. But the process remains unsettled as Britain prepares for another election a week after NATO leaders leave.

Privately, Western leaders are concerned not only with Trump’s actions in Ukraine but also with the larger question of whether he will further weaken the alliance created after World War II to counter the Soviet Union.

Trump, who called NATO “obsolete” during his 2016 campaign, has rattled past gatherings, but he has not sought to abolish it. That could change, some analysts say, if he wins reelection.

Trump’s tenuous loyalty to NATO “may not survive a reelection, so I think they’re all worried about that,” Wright said.

Tensions emerged in public recently when Macron, in an interview with the Economist magazine, complained of the “brain death” of NATO in the aftermath of Trump’s abrupt decision to order U.S. troops out of northeast Syria.

Macron labeled it a “Wake up!” moment for Europe, which he argued is no longer able to coordinate joint defense decisions with an increasingly isolated United States. Other allies are less sure and are waiting to see whether Trump’s “America first” approach represents long-term U.S. shifts in foreign policy and security priorities.

Macron’s comments prompted debate over whether Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and commitments in northern Syria reflect a deeper belief by Americans that they do not share Europe’s goals.

“You can see the frustration, and this frustration is, I think, what explains the bluntness,” said Corentin Brustlein, director of security studies for the French Institute of International Relations, a nonpartisan think tank in Paris.

France and Germany have proposed assembling a group of outside experts to study NATO’s future, an issue that is expected to come up during the summit.

“The majority view, without any doubt in Europe, is that we should work every day to keep this alliance and keep the United States in the alliance,” said the European diplomat, who said allies have attempted to “work around the things that Trump is saying.”

A senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. commitment to NATO is not up for debate and that the alliance remains “the bulwark of international peace and stability.”

NATO members face major challenges, however. One of the biggest is the decision by Turkey, a NATO member, to purchase Russian S-400 missiles, ignoring complaints by Washington and its allies.

In response, the United States barred Turkey from participating in the F-35 fighter jet program dominant in NATO. Washington has also threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey for dealing with Russian military firms.

After meeting with Erdogan at the White House on Nov. 13, Trump told a joint news conference that Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, “creates some very serious challenges for us, and we are talking about it constantly.”

Erdogan refused to back down. “We regard the proposal to completely remove the S-400s as meddling in our sovereign rights,” he said after he returned to Turkey. “There can be no question of us leaving the S-400s.”

Turkey purchased the Russian S-400s instead of the U.S.-made Patriot system in defiance of its NATO partners. The S-400s and the Patriots perform roughly the same function of intercepting missiles.

Administration officials said they still hoped they could persuade Erdogan, but the chances seem dim. Turkey’s military said on Nov. 25 that the S-400 system would be tested in coming days.

“Yeah, it’s concerning,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the next day. “We are hopeful. We’re still talking to the Turks. We’re still trying to figure our way through this thing.”