Trump’s public performance in Brussels was a disaster. Behind closed doors, it was even worse.
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
At long last, U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed NATO’s bedrock collective defense clause, Article 5, in a press conference Friday. “Absolutely, I’d be committed to Article 5,” he said Friday in response to a question from a journalist, speaking beside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at the White House. It gives nervous NATO allies something they’ve yearned for since he came to office in January after disparaging the alliance and openly praising its top geopolitical foe, Russia.
But it may not be enough to patch things over with his NATO allies after his visit last month to Brussels, where Trump gave a public tongue lashing that surprised NATO leaders and his national security team alike — because behind closed doors, things were even worse.
After a public showing on May 25 in which Trump refused to endorse NATO’s collective defense clause and famously shoved the Montenegrin leader out of the way, leaders of the 29-member alliance retired to a closed-door dinner that multiple sources tell Foreign Policy left alliance leaders “appalled.”
Trump had two versions of prepared remarks for the dinner, one that took a traditional tack and one prepared by the more NATO-skeptic advisors, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. “He dumped both of them and improvised,” one source briefed on the dinner told FP.
During the dinner, Trump went off-script to criticize allies again for not spending enough on defense. (The United States is one of only five members that meets NATO members’ pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.)
Several sources briefed extensively on the dinner say he said 2 percent wasn’t enough and allies should spend 3 percent of GDP on defense, and he even threatened to cut back U.S. defense spending and have Europeans dole out “back pay” to make up for their low defense spending if they didn’t pony up quickly enough. Two sources say Trump didn’t mention Russia once during the dinner.
“Oh, it was like a total shitshow,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to discuss the closed-door dinner.
“The dinner was far worse than the speech,” said a former senior U.S. government official briefed on dinner. “It was a train wreck. It was awful.”
NATO headquarters declined to comment on the dinner. “This was a confidential dinner of allied leaders and we respect their confidence,” a NATO spokesperson said.
Trump’s actions during his Brussels visit, both in public and behind closed doors, shed light on how the transatlantic relationship has soured in just the few short months since Trump took office.
His decision to deliberately omit a line of his speech in which he pledged to honor NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause also showcases another example of Trump going off script — a move that blindsided his national security team, as Politico reported.
Jim Townsend, the former top Pentagon envoy to NATO during President Barack Obama’s administration, said the visit damaged Washington’s standing with its closest allies. “[Trump] has no self control,” Townsend said. “He made his point — rudely, I thought — so why not use the dinner behind closed doors to talk about anything: Russia, strategy, Afghanistan. He didn’t.”
After Trump’s performance in Brussels, top European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron publicly criticized Trump in unusually stark tones. Meanwhile, just two weeks after the Brussels visit, Canada announced it would boost defense spending because it can no longer rely on the United States for global leadership.
On Friday, he reiterated claims — widely debunked — that NATO allies “owe” back pay for years past it didn’t reach its 2 percent defense spending threshold. “Do we ever go back and say how about paying the money from many many years past?” Trump said. “Now I know no president has ever asked that question. But I do,” he added. “Perhaps you should pay some or all of that money back.” (As former officials pointed out, Washington decides for itself how much it spends on NATO, and defense spending in NATO isn’t a financial transaction where allies “buy into” U.S. defense commitments.)
He also took credit for the alliance’s decision to boost defense spending. “Because of us, money is starting to pour into NATO,” Trump said.
NATO first announced a plan for all of its members over the course of the next decade to reach the 2 percent threshold in September 2014, over two years before Trump was elected. Experts and NATO officials say Russia, not Trump, prompted the move.
In fact, the president’s hounding of allies to spend more on defense could have the opposite effect in Europe.
“The public lecturing is counterproductive,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Boosting defense spending is an uphill political battle in many parts of Europe. Trump’s deep unpopularity on the Continent doesn’t help the matter, particularly in Germany, the Continent’s economic and political powerhouse. That means leaders could walk away from pledges to increase spending “because they don’t want to appear to be bowing to Trump,” Daalder told FP.
“President Trump could not have chosen a worse strategy to getting Germany to spend more on defense,” said Tomas Valasek, who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to NATO for four years up until April.
Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence was deployed to clean up the diplomatic carnage Trump left behind in Brussels. During an Atlantic Council awards dinner Monday night, Pence pledged “unwavering” U.S. commitment to NATO. He also lavished praise on the prime minister of Montenegro, whom Trump shoved aside in Brussels during a photo op. But “allies were taking [Pence’s speech] with a grain of salt,” Alexander Vershbow, former NATO deputy secretary-general, told FP.
And Trump’s remarks Friday may not cut it. “He gets partial credit for finally saying it,” said Julie Smith, a former senior White House official during President Barack Obama’s administration now with the Center for a New American Security. “But many allies felt the right time to say it was on his first trip to NATO when all members were present. They won’t easily forget that he deliberately removed that line when he spoke in Brussels.”
And the fact that his pledge to Article 5 was prompted by a question from a journalist instead of in prepared remarks won’t help the matter, said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council. “Trump’s improvised and conditional statement about NATO’s Article 5 is not how to reassure allies and certainly not how to deter Russian aggression,” said Benitez.
Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau – Pool/Getty Images