U.S. Envoy to NATO: A Washington Insider Caught Between Trump and a Hard Place

Kay Bailey Hutchison will have to clean up whatever mess the president leaves behind in Brussels.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison talks with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (right) and Gen. Denis Mercier, NATO's supreme commander for transformation, during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 8. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison talks with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (right) and Gen. Denis Mercier, NATO's supreme commander for transformation, during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 8. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Kay Bailey Hutchison might have the toughest job in Brussels.

As the U.S. ambassador to NATO, she has tried to curry favor with its member states, praising the nearly 70-year-old alliance ahead of a key summit this week.

But as the representative of President Donald Trump, she has been tarred by his caustic denunciations of NATO and the overtures he has made to the alliance’s main adversary, Russia.

The president began his trip to Brussels on Wednesday by hurling diplomatic bombshells at allies for laggard defense spending, previewing what most officials expect to be a fiery and contentious summit.

At a breakfast on Wednesday, Trump chided allies for being “delinquent” on payments to NATO and accused Germany of being “totally controlled” by Russia because of a major new gas pipeline project between the two countries, interrupting a stunned NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Hutchison, the 74-year-old former Republican senator from Texas, looked on uncomfortably as she sat beside Trump with chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“The president’s animosity toward NATO makes it very hard for [Hutchison],” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

“It doesn’t matter what she says or does because the president often contradicts it.”

But other NATO watchers countered that Hutchison is playing the hand she has been dealt as best she can since taking up her post in August 2017 — one of the few prominent ambassador slots to get filled during Trump’s first year in office.

“She is doggedly making the case for NATO,” said Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the alliance from 2009 to 2013 and is now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“It’s not the case the president is making, but it is the case she is making.”

Leaders of NATO’s 29 member states are gathering in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday for the alliance’s summit, bracing for Trump’s next public tirade against alliance members for not shouldering a fair share of defense spending in Europe — a message that Hutchison and other top administration officials have pushed since Trump took office.

Only eight of the 29 members will reach the NATO threshold of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by the end of the year, though NATO insists that its members are turning a corner and boosting spending.

On his way to Brussels on Tuesday, Trump fired off a volley of tweets criticizing the alliance, even as Hutchison took to the airwaves to do the opposite.

“The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 Billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn’t work!” he wrote in one tweet.

But Hutchison has chosen to focus on the things the United States has in common with NATO members. In recent interviews, she has lauded the alliance, bashed Russia and its illegal annexation of Crimea, and praised European allies for stepping up on defense spending.

“NATO really is making progress, and they are doing it really at President Trump’s insistence,” Hutchison told Fox News in an interview on Sunday. “Every ally is now increasing defense spending. We’ve had the largest increase in defense spending since the Cold War.”

Ordinarily, it would be uncommon to see much daylight between a president and his ambassador. But Hutchison has had a long career in politics. As a result, she has powerful allies on Capitol Hill and more clout in Washington than the average U.S. ambassador.

Before starting her diplomatic career, Hutchison distinguished herself as a staunchly conservative but consensus-building U.S. senator for two decades. She held committee leadership roles and served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the congressional body that oversees many aspects of U.S. policy toward NATO from Capitol Hill.

At the height of her career in politics nearly a decade ago, there was even buzz of Hutchison making a presidential run. In 2008, the New York Times named Hutchison as one of the women in politics most likely to become the first female U.S. president. Two years later, she ran a failed gubernatorial campaign in Texas against Rick Perry, Trump’s current secretary of energy.

Though any presidential ambitions she may have harbored fell short, Hutchison was a trailblazer on the national political scene. She was one of only seven women to graduate from a class of 236 students at the University of Texas Law School in 1967, according to Dallas News. In 1972, she became the first Republican woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives, and in 1993, she became the first female senator from Texas, a post she held until 2013.

Hutchison’s Texas roots run deep. She is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a signer of Texas’s declaration of independence, and she has written multiple books on women who pioneered and shaped America and the Lone Star State from their early days.

As ambassador to NATO, Hutchison has continually made the case that the United States takes seriously its obligations to NATO and to deter Russia. Ironically, even as Trump bashes allies and lauds Russian President Vladimir Putin, his administration has done the opposite.

Since Trump took office, the United States has boosted funding for U.S. military posture and exercises in Europe by some 40 percent and expelled Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. It has also sent lethal weapons, including antitank missiles, to Ukraine as it fights Russian-backed separatists — a move the Obama administration balked at.

“Trump will fire off some tweet about Russia that raises a lot of eyebrows, but then if you look at the administration’s policies on Russia, they’ve been the toughest since the Reagan administration,” said Luke Coffey, an expert with the Heritage Foundation.

“The most important thing for [Hutchison] to do is to provide this context for President Trump.”

When asked about a tweet on Monday in which Trump falsely claimed that the United States is paying for 90 percent of NATO, Hutchison told PBS NewsHour that the United States pays 22 percent of NATO’s common funding but does foot the bill for other elements of European security.

“I don’t know where he is looking for the … 90 percent, but I know that there are many different areas where we are dual-purposed,” she said.

Hutchison has also sharply criticized Putin, whom Trump is meeting in Finland after the NATO summit. She sought to allay concerns that the president might recognize Crimea as part of Russia in any grand bargain with Moscow.

“The Ukraine people … have stood strong for their sovereignty and their right of self-governance,” Hutchison told CBS’s Face the Nation in an interview on Sunday. “We are standing behind them on that. And there’s no light between any of our allies on that very important issue.”

Still, some NATO officials are not assuaged by the ambassador’s public assurances.

“[Hutchison] can go on the Sunday shows and say all the right things,” one NATO official told Foreign Policy.

“But who knows if she really speaks for the White House.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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