BRUSSELS — President Trump kicked off his visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit here Wednesday with fiery words for members states of the military alliance and a direct attack on Germany for a Russian energy pipeline project the country’s companies and leaders have supported.
At a breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump complained that American taxpayers were not getting their fair share out of NATO and said Germany was “totally controlled” by Russia because much of its energy in the future may come from a pipeline called Nord Stream 2, which would bring Russian natural gas across the Baltic Sea.
While many NATO members had been bracing for Trump to renew his complaints about defense spending among alliance countries, Trump’s comments — and his lashing out at Germany in particular — all but ensure that the two-day summit would likely be filled with these kinds of tense moments and contentious debates about Trump’s commitment to NATO overall. The heated statements also showed that as the president faces domestic pressure about his own relationship with Russia and his planned meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland, Trump would be using his time in Europe to question whether other heads of states were under the Kremlin’s thumb.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia, because they will be getting from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline,” Trump said during his breakfast with Stoltenberg, though in fact Germany through private companies has not yet begun to receive its energy from the pipeline. “And you tell me if that’s appropriate, because I think it’s not, and I think it’s a very bad thing for NATO and I don’t think it should have happened.”
Despite the misleading comments, Trump continued to attack Germany and noted that the country spends about 1 percent of its budget on defense expenditures and has yet to meet a pledge by NATO members to spend 2 percent of each member country’s overall GDP on defense expenditures by 2024. He added that Germany’s support of the Russian pipeline was “very bad” for NATO and that members should spend this week talking through whether it is appropriate for Germany to support the pipeline.
“Germany is a captive of Russia,” Trump said. “We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country that we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly pushed back on those statements Wednesday, telling reporters: “Germany does a lot for NATO.”
“I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” said Merkel, who grew up in what was then communist East Germany. “I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions. That is very good, especially for people in eastern Germany.”
She also said Germany’s commitment to NATO helps the United States.
“Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan,” Merkel said. “In that, we also defend the interests of the United States.”
Meanwhile, as he has for weeks leading up to the NATO summit, Trump also criticized member states who spend less than 2 percent of their country’s GDP on defense. As of last month, only five countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia, and Latvia — have hit the 2 percent mark, according to a report released Tuesday by NATO. During a press conference Wednesday, Stoltenberg said he expects eight NATO members to meet that pledge by the end of the year.
In an important exchange Wednesday morning over breakfast, Stoltenberg credited Trump for countries increasing their defense spending.
“The good news is that allies have started to invest more in defense,” Stoltenberg said as he sat across from Trump, U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Kelly, White House chief of staff, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton. “After years of cutting defense budgets, they have started to add billions to their defense budgets. And last year was the biggest increase in defense spending across Europe and Canada in that generation.”
“Why was that last year?” Trump interjected.
“It’s also because of your leadership, because of your carried message,” Stoltenberg replied.
But even with that flattery, Trump did not let up and claimed that Americans were essentially being unfairly burdened by the United States’ involvement in NATO. He claimed that NATO’s finances were “unfair to our taxpayer.”
“I think that these countries have to step it up not over a 10-year period; they have to step it up immediately,” Trump said. “This has been going on for decades, this has been brought up by other presidents, but other presidents never did anything about it because I don’t think they understood or they just didn’t want to get involved. But I have to bring it up because I think it’s very unfair to our country, it’s very unfair to our taxpayer.”
Trump pointed to Germany as an example of a country that could do more. “Germany is a rich country,” he said. “They talk about they’re going to increase it a tiny bit by 2030. Well, they could increase it immediately tomorrow and have no problem. I don’t think it’s fair to the United States.”
Stoltenberg — who is also a former Norwegian Prime Minister — pushed back a bit on Trump’s criticism, but was careful to moderate his tone. “Well, I think that even during the Cold War, NATO Allies were trading with Russia,” he said.
Soon after the breakfast, Trump tweeted out a video of himself criticizing Germany during the breakfast. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later noted that Trump will meet face to face with Merkel later Wednesday and that he plans to reiterate his criticisms of the Russian energy pipeline to her.
Trump will also have a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron Wednesday, though reporters will not be allowed to cover that meeting or the meeting with Merkel.