The NATO meeting was a little tough, for a little while.
That’s what Donald Trump told reporters in Brussels on Thursday, following a laughably (if predictably) contentious couple of days, that found the President of the United States demanding, among other things, that America’s allies increase defense spending to 4% of GDP.
He would later characterize that demand as a kind of aspirational goal that everyone should aim at “in the future”. So I guess around the time “Space Force” finally gets off the ground (figuratively and literally).
Thursday’s rambling press conference marked a fitting end to the summit for Trump, who kicked things off on Wednesday by calling Germany a gas “captive” of Russia, much to the chagrin of a visibly distraught John Kelly.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Trump’s criticism of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, calling it an unfair attempt by the U.S. to force Germany to buy more expensive LNG. “Delivery of gas from Russia creates mutual benefit, not dependence”, Peskov said on a conference call, adding that “Russia is a reliable guarantor of energy security for Europe”.
Speaking of Russia, Trump repeatedly characterized Vladimir Putin as a “competitor” when quizzed by reporters today ahead of the upcoming summit in Helsinki. Trump seems to like the “competitor” label (he’s used it a lot lately) as it allows him to begrudgingly admit that Russia is antagonistic without calling them an “enemy”. He also went out of his way at the NATO press event to say (repeatedly) that the main reason he can’t call Putin “a friend” is because he “doesn’t know him well enough” (“Russ-er? I barely know her!“).
Thursday’s remarks from Trump come hours after an extremely disconcerting report from DPA which said the U.S. President actually threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO if its allies didn’t “immediately” increase their defense spending. That was according to unidentified people who were said to be “following the talks.”
Reuters would later attempt to play that down, writing the following:
U.S. President Donald Trump did not threaten to pull out of NATO at the second day of a summit on Thursday, despite a tough rebuke of allies for spending too little on defense, two NATO sources told Reuters.
Asked if he had issued the threat to quit the military alliance, both sources said: “No”.
“No” as in “no, he didn’t suggest anything like that”? Or, “no” as in “he didn’t use those specific words”?
Because it would be entirely consistent with Trump’s express disdain for multilateralism to tell European leaders that he’s thinking of quitting the alliance. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn’t differentiate much between alliances and other multilateral institutions; one is just as dispensable as the other, just ask the WTO. And this particular alliance happens to have deterrence of Trump’s “competitor” Russia, as a goal.
Of course the idea of the U.S. quitting NATO is far-fetched in the extreme and it’s entirely possible that Trump would face an actual revolt from Congress and the military itself if he tried to move ahead with something like that, but you get the point: it is not at all difficult to imagine him telling his European counterparts that he’s thinking of pulling out.
Underscoring the notion that he said something that rattled everyone even if he didn’t use the world “quit” are reports that NATO leaders held an unscheduled meeting on Thursday to discuss the alliance budget.
One official who spoke to Bloomberg said the ad hoc gathering on Thursday morning was happening in the context of Trump threatening to “go it alone” barring an agreement from everyone else to increase their defense budgets immediately. The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on that.
Draw your own conclusions and don’t let it be lost on you that this meeting will undoubtedly be a hot topic when Trump meets Putin later this month.