Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

As President Trump’s disastrous engagement at NATO continues, a chorus of voices has argued that Trump is merely fulfilling his campaign promises — he’s doing exactly what he said he would do. But if we are going to repeat this idea, it needs to be taken seriously. Trump didn’t merely claim he’d shake up the terms of our engagement with the rest of the world. He also said this would make America great — he’d get America “winning” again. And that second half of the great promise at the core of Trumpism — the much more important one — is getting unmasked as a massive lie.

This morning, Trump held a presser that is being widely described as a reaffirmation of his commitment to NATO. In reality, this reaffirmation can only be seen as conditional. Trump proclaimed our NATO allies had agreed to “substantially” increase their commitment to defense spending, asserting he’d be “very unhappy” if they failed him. But only moments later, French President Emmanuel Macron flatly declared that they hadn’t agreed to any such increase; our allies remain committed to reaching 2 percent by the middle of the next decade, as previously agreed upon.

In other words, our commitment to NATO is contingent on Trump’s ability to leave the summit proclaiming victory. Yet that victory hasn’t actually materialized yet. It is possible that Trump will simply continue to declare victory with spending that’s already been secured, and that his base will believe it. Or it is possible that at some point, our allies really will jack up their spending to whatever level Trump says they promised, at which point Trump will proclaim an even bigger win than the imaginary one he’s claiming now.

But even if that latter scenario were to happen, it wouldn’t really matter, and the reason is that there is a big, gaping contradiction at the core of Trump’s approach to this whole fiasco. As Max Fisher writes, there is no reason to believe that Trump’s hostility toward NATO would be mollified even if his demands (whatever they may be) were met, because he doesn’t value the whole point of NATO in the first place — he places no value in the very idea of collective self-defense. As Fisher puts it, “this collective defense is the point of European defense spending, so more defense spending cannot appease him because he does not value its results.”

For years, Trump has cast this collective defense as a veiled scheme for other countries to rip off the United States. It would be a “win” for America if Trump got our allies to contribute more. But even if that happened, they would not be paying that money to the United States, they’d be spending it on their own defense, and to the degree that this contributes to the common defense, Trump doesn’t even value that, anyway.

The question isn’t just: Where’s the winning? It’s also: What would winning even look like?

Trump’s various nonsensical claims about NATO illustrate the problem. He continues to claim that “we” are owed this money. That’s false. But what that really shows is that the only way he can cast getting allies to pay more as a “win” for us, by his own lights, is to falsely suggest the money would in some form come to us. But that money, even if it were paid, wouldn’t come to us. It isn’t as if Trump would suddenly secure cuts to defense spending in response and call for putting that money into other things. Note that Trump actually did campaign on the idea that “winning” for America would entail huge domestic spending on things such as infrastructure, but that isn’t happening, and it wouldn’t happen if our allies paid more.

Trump’s demented idea of ‘respect’

Trump also likes to claim other countries are “laughing” at us, and now they’ll damn well “respect” us again. But here, too, even if our allies ponied up bigly, they wouldn’t “respect” us at all. They would only continue to see us as a threat to the stability of the Western liberal order. Fear of an erratic, unpredictable America run by a madman isn’t genuine respect for America. Even if Trump got his way, how would that outcome be worth all these downsides?

“Trump said he would make America more respected in the world,” David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book about international institutions, told me. “But Trump is now leaving this NATO summit with every other leader convinced that he is a threat to NATO and an unstable actor. He’s damaged the standing of the presidency and undermined the post-World War II international order.”

Trump cannot explain why undermining that order constitutes “winning,” because at best, Trump is operating from a deeply incoherent idea about what winning would entail in the first place. At worst, his ever escalating demands are designed not to be met but to create a pretext for precipitating a fissure with the alliance, or continuing to damage it in other ways. After all, he doesn’t see value in it anyway.

Which leads us back to today’s Trump lie about other countries agreeing to pay more. Trump’s notion of “winning” is constantly fluid and subject to revision, perpetually redefined as whatever he can claim (usually falsely) he secured at any given moment. It’s whatever he did that is making “elites” squeal on this morning’s cable news shows. It’s whatever his base can be made to believe is a win. It’s quicksilver.

At his next press conference, Trump should be asked point-blank: How does any of this fulfill your promise to “win” for America?

* TRUMP TO BRING UP RUSSIAN SABOTAGE WITH PUTIN: This morning, Trump also said he would bring up Russian election meddling in his upcoming meeting with Putin:

“What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it. You’ll be the first to know.”

Translation: If Putin denies he sabotaged U.S. democracy on my behalf, and winks at me while “promising” he won’t do it again on the GOP’s behalf, we’re all good.

* TRUMP ‘FURIOUS’ OVER NATO MEDIA REPORTS: Politico relates this odd behind-the-scenes nugget from yesterday’s NATO antics:

NATO officials said Trump was furious over media coverage suggesting that the first day of the summit had proceeded calmly, and that he had demanded to hold a press conference immediately after the morning meeting.

In other words, Trump didn’t make enough of a spectacle of himself, and he was furious that our allies tried to project stability and calm.

* TRUMP KEEPS LYING ABOUT NATO FUNDING: CNN has a good explainer on how NATO funding works. It is not about paying the U.S. money; it is about spending on collective self-defense:

For collective defense to work, the 29 members have to keep their armed forces in good shape, so NATO sets an official target on how much they should spend … 2 percent of GDP. There is no penalty for not meeting the 2 percent target. Each country decides how much it is going to spend and what it will spend on. … Despite Trump’s repeated suggestion that NATO members owe the US, members do not pay each other.

Forget these annoying details. Allies are laughing at us, and Trump will make us respected again.

* THE BIG TEST ON NATO IS TO COME: Ivo Daalder points out that Europeans are deeply unnerved by Trump’s bluster, but nonetheless that NATO members agreed on a number of important things strengthening the alliance. And:

The real test will come Monday, when President Trump meets Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. If Trump stands up to the Russian leader and underscores differences over Ukraine, Syria and arms control, allies will be reassured. But if Trump agrees to concessions — like halting the deployment of troops in the East, limiting missile defenses or ending NATO enlargement — allies will know that Trump’s bluster is real.

Well, we do know that Trump already said the meeting with Putin may be the easiest of them all.

* DEMS TARGET KAVANAUGH ON EXECUTIVE POWER: The New York Times reports that Democrats are raising questions about Brett M. Kavanaugh’s belief that Congress should protect sitting presidents from investigation. Dem pollster Geoff Garin:

“Voters, including many independent voters and some Republican voters, care deeply about maintaining the Supreme Court as an independent check and balance on the power of the president,” Mr. Garin said. “Our polling in red states shows that voters would approve of their senator voting against confirmation if he or she believed that the nominee would weaken the court’s role as providing an independent check and balance.”

Democrats must urgently pursue this line of questioning to determine what Kavanaugh believes about the president’s power related to investigations into himself.

* FBI AGENT FACES GRILLING: NPR reports that FBI agent Peter Strzok gets questioned today by House Republicans about those texts with Lisa Page that allegedly show deep FBI bias against Trump:

Republicans have cited Page’s and Strzok’s messages as evidence about what they call bias inside federal law enforcement and that conspirators launched the Russia investigation out of partisan animus. … The Strzok-Page saga has also attracted the personal attention of the president, who has frequently commented on the ongoing scandal as evidence of a “witch hunt” against him.

Strzok’s answers will likely bolster what the inspector general found — that the FBI’s overall conduct was not improperly influenced by politics — but none of that will matter to Trump and his followers.

* AND TRUMP WANTS TO MAKE OVER AIR FORCE ONE: Axios reports that Trump wants to repaint the presidential aircraft:

Trump wants to change the plane’s signature blue-and-white look that goes back 55 years. … We’re told that Trump wants a color scheme that “looks more American.” … He doesn’t think the current blue (technically “luminous ultramarine”) represents the USA. The president’s preferred design is believed to include red, white and blue.

As historian Michael Beschloss puts it: “Why would anyone want to discard an Air Force One design that evokes more than a half-century of American history?” Maybe discarding that history is the whole point.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: This remarkable exchange at NATO perfectly captures Trump’s ugly bad faith

The Post’s View: Trump is poisoning NATO. Why?

Christian Caryl: Do Americans really want to trash NATO?

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

Greg Sargent: A big question about Trump that Democrats must insist Kavanaugh answer