The Cable

White House Rejects Claims Trump Gave Merkel Fake $376 Billion ‘Bill’ For NATO Payments

Because Trump and Merkel’s meeting went so smoothly otherwise.

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The tense Donald Trump-Angela Merkel meeting this month may have been even tenser behind the scenes. Not because of awkward attempts to rebuff a handshake, or poorly-fashioned surveillance jokes, but because of a fake invoice for NATO payments. To the tune of some $376 billion. With interest.

German officials told the Sunday Times the U.S. President handed the German Chancellor a “bill” reportedly amounting to over $376 billion to reflect Germany’s shortfall in defense spending since 2002 as a NATO alliance member. An anonymous German minister told the Sunday Times, which first reported the story Sunday, that the gesture was “ridiculous.”

“The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said. Merkel’s office hasn’t yet publicly responded to the disputed report but White House spokesman Michael Short denied it as “false.”

NATO defense spending became a top sticking point for Trump, who excoriated allies on the presidential campaign trail for “freeriding” off U.S. defense commitments by not footing their fare share of the bill. During his visit to Brussels last month, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a fuzzy ultimatum that the United States would “moderate” its commitments to NATO if allies didn’t boost their defense expenditures.

After his meeting with Merkel on March 17, full of more public cringe-worthy diplomatic snafus, Trump took to Twitter to say Germany owed the United States money for NATO (but first, of course, he had to bash the media):

 

German officials and former U.S. officials rebuked the claims, as that’s not how NATO defense spending works. “There is no account where debts are registered with NATO,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement responding to Trump’s allegations.

“The idea that countries ‘owe’ the United States for what they rightly see as a defense posture that serves America’s own direct interests, is considered absurd by many allies,” former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told Foreign Policy.

NATO asks member countries to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, though only five of 28 members currently meet that requirement — the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece.

Germany currently spends 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense. But it’s also NATO’s second-largest contributor to civil and military budgets after the United States, funding 14 percent of the alliance’s common shared budgets and programs.

Berlin announced in February it would up defense spending by some $2 billion in 2017 and boost the size of its armed forces to 200,000 over the next seven years. But experts and former officials contend Germany’s decision was borne out of new security threats, not Trump’s badgering.

“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin is a far bigger reason defense budgets in Europe are now rising than Donald Trump,” Daalder said.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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