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Opinion This remarkable exchange at NATO perfectly captures Trump’s ugly bad faith

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)


This morning, at the NATO summit, President Trump got into an extended dust-up with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and the exchange generating the headlines is the one in which Trump ripped into Germany for getting so much energy from Russia, adding: “We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”

As some quickly pointed out, Trump was basically performing a version of his “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet” routine, as well as treating NATO a bit like a “protection racket.”

But there’s another exchange with Stoltenberg that is also extremely telling. In it, Stoltenberg was talking about how NATO members had agreed to boost their contributions to NATO defense costs, as insisted upon by Trump, who claims the United States is getting ripped off. But then Trump demanded Stoltenberg give him credit for it:

President Trump attacked NATO allies on July 11, during an exchange with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. (Video: The Washington Post)

After Stoltenberg noted that NATO members had boosted their spending recently, Trump asked: “Why was that?” Stoltenberg took Trump’s cue and said it was “because of your leadership.” Trump then gestured to the press and said, “They won’t write that.” Stoltenberg then supplied Trump with the additional praise he wanted, even claiming that “your message is having an impact.” It was after Stoltenberg extolled the virtues of our alliance that Trump launched into the diatribe about Russia, Germany and energy — and again claimed the United States is being treated unfairly.

What’s remarkable here is Stoltenberg’s active effort to get Trump to take credit for getting his own way at NATO. European officials badly want Trump to do this, because they are hoping it will mollify him. The Post reports that diplomats are worried that Trump’s commitment to the organization might weaken to a crisis point, which would “send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether NATO’s most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked.” On top of that, they fear this will play into the hands of Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump is also set to meet.

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And so, to avert this crisis, European officials “would love nothing more than for Trump to take a victory lap and claim credit for them boosting their defense spending,” Jonathan Swan recently reported. The trouble is that Trump won’t even acknowledge what our allies are actually doing in this regard. He keeps claiming that other NATO countries have fallen short of their defense budget commitment, but this is false: In fact, this target is a future one that NATO members agreed upon.

In that context, this exchange with Stoltenberg underscores the point. Stoltenberg gave Trump a big moment for domestic consumption, particularly for his base: The power of Trump’s “America First” message is forcing the Euro-weenie elites to stop fleecing the U.S. and pony up! They’re not laughing at us anymore, dammit! America is respected again! Or as one administration official recently described the Trump Doctrine: “We’re America, b—h!”

Yet the takeaway from the episode has to be that Trump is far from satisfied. But what would satisfy him? It’s true that previous presidents have made an issue of NATO funding in the past, but what’s happening now seems like something different: As Jonathan Chait points out, Trump appears to be deliberately avoiding any scenario in which he might claim a win. Indeed, it’s plausible that, whether through ignorance or malice, he has structured his ask in a way that it cannot be fulfilled, in order to create a pretext for precipitating a fissure with the alliance:

Compared to a week ago, it is now harder to imagine Trump will use the summit to leverage concessions that will make him appear like a strong negotiator, and much easier to imagine that he will use it to instigate a diplomatic crisis with NATO. By the time this is over, he may well have reoriented American foreign policy completely.

It’s a variation on the routine of the schoolyard bully who says to his prey, “What did you say about my mother?” The prey then protests that he said nothing, prompting the bully to respond: “Are you calling me a liar?” The parallel is imperfect, but in both cases the interaction is rigged so no response is ever good enough, to create a pretext for a predetermined action.

Something similar is happening on trade: Trump’s tariffs are being imposed along with demands that cannot be met, suggesting the actual goal is to rupture the global trading order. Indeed, the basic question that threads through many of Trump’s recent actions is whether he is actively trying to destroy the institutions and international order that have undergirded the Western liberal democratic achievement for the past 70 years. What presses this question upon us — and at the same time makes it hard to reckon with adequately — is that so much of what Trump does appears saturated in a level of bad faith that defies description, analysis or explanation.

* SCOTUS BATTLE COULD HELP DEMS WIN HOUSE: Carl Hulse reports that the battle over Trump nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh could help Republicans expand their Senate majority by putting vulnerable Dems in a tough spot. But:

The fight for the House is being waged across swing suburban districts around the country. The high-profile battle for the Supreme Court could provide a new opening for Democrats to appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters leery of Mr. Trump, particularly women concerned about potential new limits on abortion rights.

This comes on top of the deep alienation of female voters from Trump. Just wait until the discussion of Roe v. Wade hits full boil, heading into the midterms.

* PENCE WANTS ROE OVERTURNED: Vice President Pence tells CNN that he wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but he adds a nuance:

“This administration, this President are pro-life, but what the American people ought to know is that, as the President said today, this is not an issue he discussed with Judge Kavanaugh, I didn’t discuss it with him either,” Pence said in an interview. … When [Dana] Bash asked Pence if he still wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, the vice president responded, “I do, but I haven’t been nominated to the Supreme Court.”

Of course, we all know that the man who has been nominated to the Supreme Court was chosen from a list of people who were carefully vetted on precisely this point.

* MURKOWSKI IS GETTING LOTS OF CALLS: Dems and liberals are putting immense pressure on GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) to oppose Kavanaugh. This tidbit from a Murkowski interview is interesting:

“This morning I was given the update on what we are receiving in incoming calls, incoming emails, and who they’re from. And as of … 10:30 I guess — the bulk of the calls were coming from the Lower 48, which is understandable because Alaskans are not up yet. So we’re monitoring them as they come in.”

This means Murkowski is under a lot of national pressure. We doubt it will matter, but liberals and Democrats do need to do all they can to dramatize the stakes for the country here.

* TRUMP ESCALATES TRADE WAR AGAIN: CNN reports that Trump is readying tariffs on $200 billion more in Chinese products, but these could rebound on U.S. consumers:

The National Retail Federation, an industry group, warned about the impact on prices from the new measures. “Tariffs on such a broad scope of products make it inconceivable that American consumers will dodge this tax increase as prices of everyday products will be forced to rise,” David French, the group’s senior vice president for government relations, said in a statement.

The question is whether China will retaliate again; as we’ve noted, China’s current retaliatory tariffs are likely to hit hardest in Trump country.

* PENCE DOES DAMAGE CONTROL ON TRADE WAR: Politico reports that Pence is making a campaign trip to the Midwest, but he’s got a specific mission there:

In the face of a trade war that intensified just four days ago, Pence is quietly setting up one-on-one meetings with major Midwestern donors where he is prepared to blunt concerns over an escalating situation that’s beginning to wreak havoc on markets, farmers and employers across the region. “The cost and impact is being felt by farmers for several weeks now. It’s real. It’s a fact. It’s happening,” said Kirk Leeds, Iowa Soybean Association CEO.

Politico reports that “anxiety” is “rising,” particularly in “rural, agriculturally-oriented counties that swung to Trump in 2016.” #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

* HOW TO BOOST VOTER PARTICIPATION: An important new report from the Center for American Progress details various ways of boosting voter participation. Here’s one key finding:

If every state implemented Oregon’s model of [Automatic Voter Registration], more than 22 million registered voters could be added to state voter rolls in just the first year. Based on this analysis, one could expect more than 7.9 million new voters nationwide — including 3.2 million previously disengaged voters — within just the first year of implementation.

Automatic voter registration is in the process of being implemented in about a dozen states, but it’s in its infancy. You will be hearing a lot more about this reform soon enough.

* DEMS PREPARE ‘ABOLISH ICE’ BILL: A small group of House Democrats is preparing to introduce a bill that would abolish ICE, but as The Post reports:

[The] legislation would not alter the nation’s immigration laws. If passed, the bill would sunset [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] within one year, and immediately create a bipartisan group to work out a replacement. … The group … would consist of eight members appointed by congressional leaders and minority party leaders, and nine members from the “major civil society and immigrants’ rights organizations and individuals directly impacted by ICE practices.”

Cue the screams of “open borders,” regardless of what the bill’s details say.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Will Trump destroy NATO and every other American alliance?

Eugene Robinson: America will survive Trump. The rest of the world might not.

The Post’s View: Trump is bent on wrecking NATO. Prepare for catastrophe.

David Ignatius: Trump is scarred, prickly and needy

Greg Sargent: Trump’s delusions are about to blow up in his own voters’ faces