President Trump on Wednesday pledged his full support to NATO, reaffirming the United States' commitment to the alliance and saying he no longer considers it “obsolete,” a sharp reversal from his rhetoric on the campaign trail and during his first weeks in office.
On a day when Trump dramatically changed his stance on several policy positions, his statement about NATO stood out given his consistent criticism of the military alliance and its importance to U.S. allies.
For more than a year, Trump has said NATO is outdated and costing the United States too much money, suggesting replacing it with an alternative organization focused on counterterrorism and repeatedly using the word “obsolete.” As recently as January, Trump continued to stand by this position — which alarmed many NATO members — saying in a Jan. 15 interview with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild that NATO is “obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror” and that critics of his comments have “started saying Trump is right.”
During a joint news conference Wednesday afternoon with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump asserted that his criticisms prompted the alliance to make changes that satisfied his concerns — though he did not specify what those were.
“I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change — and now they do fight terrorism,” Trump said. “I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.”
It's unclear what changes the president was referencing. NATO added a new assistant secretary general position focused on intelligence and security in July, although experts say the change does not mark a major shift for the organization and point out that NATO has long addressed concerns of terrorism. For months after the position was created, Trump continued to call NATO obsolete.
Stoltenberg told the president he was “right,” but described the change in far different terms.
“We have established a new division for intelligence, which enhances our ability to fight terrorism, and working together in the alliance to fight terrorism in an even more effective way,” Stoltenberg said. “But we agreed today, you and I, that NATO can and must do more in the global fight against terrorism.”
Despite his campaign rhetoric, Trump and his aides have steadily offered support for NATO since he took office. The president has committed to attending a meeting of the NATO countries on May 25 in Brussels during his first foreign trip, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended meetings of the alliance in late March.
In brief remarks, Trump again called on NATO members to “meet their financial obligations and pay what they owe,” noting that member-nations are expected to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense. Stoltenberg confirmed that ensuring the cost burden is better shared among countries has become a top priority for him.
Later, Trump said he asked Stoltenberg to look into collecting back dues from countries, something that Stoltenberg did not verbally agree to do. Trump has consistently misrepresented the financial obligations of NATO members, saying they “owe vast sums” in dues and the situation is unfair to the United States. NATO members do not owe dues or back payments.
Trump also thanked NATO members for condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons and “the barbaric killing of small and helpless children and babies.” At one point, Trump referred to the Syrian leader as a “butcher.”
On Wednesday, Trump backed away from several other firm positions that he had held for months on the campaign trail. Early in the day, the government ended a federal government hiring freeze that Trump had promised to institute, although departments have been told to find other ways to shrink staff sizes. Then, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president announced he no longer considers China a currency manipulator, he now supports lower interest rates and the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and he would consider renominating Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen when her tenure is up next year, despite saying on the campaign trail he would “most likely” not reappoint her.
Last week, Trump abandoned his longtime stance that the United States should not get involved with Syria when he approved a strike on an air base there.
“I felt we had to do something about it,” Trump said Wednesday of the Syria bombing. “I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing. And it was very, very successfully done, as you well know.”