The incoming Trump administration is looking to get rid of the No. 2 official at NATO, an American nominated by President Obama whom most Republicans don’t trust. But NATO’s Brussels leadership may not play along, setting up an early confrontation with President Trump.
Two Trump transition sources told me that a representative of the transition team met late last month with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels and delivered a private but deliberate message: The incoming administration would like Stoltenberg to replace Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller. Gottemoeller, who was nominated for the post by Obama this past March, started her job in Brussels only in October and has a multi-year contract. She works for NATO, not the U.S. government.
If NATO leadership agreed to remove Gottemoeller, it would set a new precedent for U.S. government control over American officials in top NATO positions. If the NATO leadership doesn’t agree, the incoming Trump administration could work to marginalize Gottemoeller and render her ineffective. Either way, her role is set to change when the new U.S. president comes into office.
Kurt Volker, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO at the end of the George W. Bush administration, said that though a U.S. president pushing for a NATO official to be removed is unusual, it’s part and parcel of Donald Trump’s style and a good indicator of how Trump will deal with international organizations as president.
“I’m not surprised. Their style is to push for what they believe their interests to be and not just be passive about it,” he said. “Trump wants a person at NATO that reflects the administration’s views, and that’s a good sign because it shows he actually cares about the organization.”
Trump transition sources told me that Stoltenberg agreed to look into how Gottemoeller might be removed. But NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told me there has been no formal request from the Trump transition team for Gottemoeller to be let go and that no process for examining such a move is underway.
“This is not a national appointment, and the selection is made in a competition, based on merit,” Lungescu said. “Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller enjoys the full support of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the North Atlantic Council.”
Trump spoke with Stoltenberg on Nov. 18, and Stoltenberg said afterward they had had a “good talk,” focusing on the importance of the alliance for both Europe and the United States as well as the need for NATO countries to spend more on defense. Gottemoeller’s employment status did not come up during that call.
During the campaign, Trump often questioned the value of the NATO alliance, calling it “obsolete” and suggesting the United States might not come to the aid of NATO countries in a time of crisis if they weren’t paying their fair share.
The move against Gottemoeller is not so much about Trump’s positions on NATO as it is about long-standing complaints by Republican members of Congress and conservative arms control officials about Gottemoeller herself. She has long been criticized by Republican hawks as being too soft on Russia and she stands accused of withholding information about Russian cheating on treaties from both Congress and NATO allies.
“My colleagues and I consider Ms. Gottemoeller to have systematically misled and concealed information from the Congress about Russian arms control violations,” said House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). “I can’t imagine working with Ms. Gottemoeller as the Congress considers how to strengthen deterrence and assurance in Europe.”
When Obama appointed Gottemoeller as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in 2014, three leading GOP senators opposed her nomination and accused her of failing to notify Congress and NATO allies of Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Behind closed doors in 2012, Gottemoeller told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a classified briefing that Russia was violating the INF treaty by developing and testing a new ground-based cruise missile. The Obama administration didn’t tell the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political body, about the violations until January 2014 and didn’t disclose them publicly until July 2014.
Gottemoeller’s allies see the Trump transition team’s quiet move to replace her in NATO as a brazen, brute-force tactic to pressure the alliance to bend to Trump’s will.
“This is a whispering campaign by schoolyard bullies to try to pressure an organization they have already disrespected,” said Ellen Tauscher, who served as undersecretary of state for arms control before Gottemoeller. “Do they really want to pick a fight with the first American woman who is in NATO leadership, somebody who was confirmed by the Senate more than once?”
There is no formal mechanism for a member country to ask NATO to remove an official. Stoltenberg may rebuff the effort altogether. If the Trump administration can’t get Gottemoeller removed, it could just work around her, limiting contact to whomever Trump appoints as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO. Gottemoeller would stay in place, but without the backing of her home government and without access to any American officials.
“No Republicans in Congress trust her, and most Republicans who will populate the Trump administration share that opinion,” said one senior Republican congressional official.
If Gottemoeller decides to step aside, there’s no guarantee an American would be chosen to replace her. Trump would be able to nominate someone for the job, but other countries would nominate their citizens as well. The United States might lose its highest-ranking official in NATO.
Many Republicans in Washington are hoping Trump will take that chance and push for Gottemoeller to go, even if the NATO leadership balks.
“Basically, you are recalling the deputy secretary general. It is a power move, but this is par for the course for Trump,” another GOP congressional official told me.
Obama’s appointees at international organizations around the world should be forewarned: Even if you don’t work for the U.S. government directly, Trump might be looking to find a way to say, “You’re fired.”