The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NATO chief’s invitation to address Congress points to divide between Trump, GOP leaders over alliance’s value

Speaking to Congress April 3, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed NATO's importance. Here are key moments. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Reuters)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s appearance in Washington is highlighting a rare point of contention between President Trump and congressional Republicans, who continue to hold diverging views over the value of a military alliance that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this week.

Stoltenberg held lengthy meetings with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, but only as an add-on to his invitation to address Congress on Wednesday. That invitation was issued jointly by Republicans and Democrats but was spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It was seen as an effort to counter Trump’s lukewarm public endorsement of NATO and his continued assertion that the United States is being taken advantage of by allies who are not paying their fair share for the security umbrella they enjoy.

“We’re paying for a big proportion of NATO, which basically is protecting Europe,” Trump said Tuesday, sitting alongside Stoltenberg in the Oval Office. “So we’re protecting Europe. At the same time, they’re taking advantage of us on trade, so they have the best of all worlds.”

President Trump praised NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg April 2 while sitting down with him in the Oval Office. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Stoltenberg will become the first NATO chief to address a joint meeting of Congress, coming as Republican lawmakers have been eager to reassure allies that, despite Trump’s skepticism, their party stand firmly behind the military pact.

Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the bipartisan invitation is important as a counterweight to “rhetoric” he said he dislikes.

“I think NATO, traditionally, they’ve always been there for us,” he said Monday during an appearance at the Wilson Center, adding that it’s a very strong alliance that is in the best national security interest of the United States. “So I don’t like some of the rhetoric that seems to demean that.”

McConnell and other Republican leaders have split with Trump over the president’s antipathy toward the foundational premise of the alliance — that an attack on one is an attack on all — as well as his deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin on some issues important to NATO members.

But they have backed Trump’s effort to goad NATO nations into spending more on defense and to meet their commitment to spend an amount equal to 2 percent of their country’s economic output on defense.

Trump has complained loudly about members not meeting this standard, and on Tuesday he took credit for higher levels of defense spending among NATO nations, getting in a dig at Germany for failing to meet targeted spending.

“When I came it wasn’t so good, and now they’re catching up,” Trump said.

He added that he thinks the targets are too low and should be raised across the board, although only a handful of NATO nations meet the lower numbers.

“Some of them have no problems, because they haven’t been paying and they’re very rich,” Trump said in a clear reference to Germany.

While there are events across Washington this week celebrating the alliance’s 70th anniversary, Trump’s willingness to voice his complaints about NATO both in public and private ruled out a grand anniversary celebration of presidents and prime ministers that allies feared would blow up in their faces.

Stoltenberg, a soft-spoken Norwegian, has maintained a good relationship with Trump, in part, by commending the president for his push to get NATO members to spend more on defense.

“Thank you for your strong commitment to NATO, to our alliance, and to our transatlantic bond,” Stoltenberg said Tuesday at the White House. “Thank you especially for your strong leadership on burden-sharing.”

McConnell, Pelosi invite NATO leader to address Congress to mark alliance milestone

Trump has recently ramped up criticism of NATO behind closed doors.

During a meeting with senators last week on Capitol Hill, Trump mocked the new NATO headquarters building for having a glass exterior and thus looking fragile and vulnerable, seeming to suggest it should be more like a military fort than an office building, according to a congressional aide familiar with the meeting.

He complained that the alliance is not doing enough in Afghanistan, where NATO forces serve alongside U.S. personnel, the person said, and that NATO nations aren’t paying their way.

The NATO mission in Afghanistan resulted from the one time in the alliance’s history that it invoked its “Article 5” commitment to collective defense after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Some senators pushed back against Trump’s criticism, said the aide, who requested anonymity to describe the confidential discussion.

“It’s one of his biggest disagreements with the Republicans in the Senate,” the aide said.

Trump has complained in recent days that he is protecting countries the “size of a postage stamp” as part of NATO, according to a person who heard his comments and also requested anonymity because the discussion was private.

The president would like to further cut U.S. contributions to NATO, current and former aides said, but has so far been persuaded against making the move.

“NATO’s most urgent problem is the lack of strong, principled American Presidential leadership for the first time in its 70-year history,” two former U.S. ambassadors to NATO wrote in a recent report on the health of the transatlantic alliance.

“The U.S. president is the natural leader. Trump does not appear to believe in NATO or to support it when it really counts — in meetings with Putin, for example,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a retired diplomat, who wrote the report with Douglas Lute, a retired Army general.

McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) extended the invitation to Stoltenberg as a show of solidarity with NATO during the anniversary week, which some European officials and former U.S. officials had once assumed would include a fete on the order of the one President Bill Clinton helped host for the 50th anniversary in 1999.

Detailed planning for such a gathering never got off the ground, largely because allies did not want to risk a blowup. One senior European official said many NATO leaders are relieved not to have to tiptoe around Trump at a big event this week, hoping that he would not issue harsh threats or dress down other leaders.

Burns said that in interviews with current and former U.S., Canadian and European officials, it became clear to the report authors that the feeling was mutual — Trump didn’t invite them, and they didn’t want to come.

“A lot of countries also didn’t want to have a summit with Donald Trump because they were worried he would try to blow the summit up,” Burns said. “History is the guide and they remember what happened in ’17 and ’18.”

Trump will not attend a relatively low-key anniversary event with NATO diplomats Wednesday evening at historic Mellon Auditorium, where the original treaty was signed April 4, 1949. The foreign ministers’ meeting Thursday is focused on countering Russia — NATO’s original organizing principle — and on Afghanistan.

Although a commemoration has been contemplated for the 75th anniversary, in 2024, about 4 in 5 World War II veterans alive today are expected to die before then.

Trump is expected to attend a smaller gathering of leaders recently announced for London, in December. Stoltenberg has carefully described that meeting as coming “in NATO’s 70th anniversary year,” without saying it is a commemoration of the anniversary.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump refused to say that he would automatically come to the defense of NATO allies if they were attacked, and he left a commitment to that principle out of his first address to NATO leaders as president.

At Trump’s first NATO summit in May 2017, he castigated other leaders during a speech beside a memorial at NATO’s new Brussels headquarters that includes twisted metal from the World Trade Center.

At another gathering last year, Trump complained that NATO nations are willfully ignoring a commitment to spend more on defense, leaving it to the United States to close the gap.

Senators and White House aides have repeatedly talked up NATO to Trump, arguing that the alliance is a bulwark against Russian aggression that also threatens the United States, but Trump at most will agree to set aside his criticism temporarily, people familiar with those conversations said.

Vice President Pence, Cabinet officials and others frequently give the kind of unequivocal endorsement of NATO that Trump does not.

“The U.S. commitment, of course, to NATO remains firm,” a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday. “NATO membership remains an integral part” of U.S. security strategy, the official said. “As we’ve said many times before, the United States is better able to address challenges across the globe, whether militarily or politically, because of the NATO alliance.”

Trump’s criticism of the alliance comes amid infighting over the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, and political divisions over defense spending.

“The strength of NATO is that despite these differences, we have always been able to unite around our core tasks. That is, to protect and defend each other,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels before he left for Washington.