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‘Rubbing salt in the wounds’: Trump won’t take yes for an answer at NATO

President Trump checks time prior to a dinner with other leaders at the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday. (Pool photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

BRUSSELS — For a president who loves declaring victory, the NATO summit here Wednesday could have provided a perfect opportunity.

After a year of haranguing by President Trump, Western leaders had agreed to his administration’s long-sought priorities on defense spending and counterterrorism — and were prepared to let him take all the credit.

But Trump had other plans.

The U.S. president began a remarkable day of transatlantic diplomacy by attacking Germany as “captive to Russia,” later called on NATO countries to double their previous commitment to defense spending and then effectively renounced the gathering altogether.

“He could declare victory . . . and ride off in a blaze of glory as leader of the West,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Russia who met with officials on the sidelines of Wednesday’s summit. “But he’s rubbing salt in the wounds.”

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

Behind closed doors, Trump was cordial and even magnanimous at times with his European counterparts, according to officials who interacted with him. And at dinner, where the leaders mingled as an acrobatic dancer performed, floating in the air, Trump said it was “a very good day at NATO.”

Publicly, however, Trump bristled and bickered, interrupted and impeded — making clear to the world he is impatient and annoyed with an alliance that he says takes advantage of the United States.

“Everything in the room was fine,” Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania, said in an interview. But outside the room, she said, Trump was less productive, with his “outspoken rhetoric.”

President Trump beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels on July 11. Earlier in the day, Trump accused Germany of being "captive to Russia." (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump lashes out at NATO allies, then asks them to double their defense spending goals

During a closed-door working session of all the leaders, Trump was relatively reserved, according to attendees. He repeated the same arguments he made earlier in public that NATO member states needed to up their defense spending and that Germany is too dependent on Russia for natural gas. But he also stressed the common security threats all NATO allies face, according to a senior diplomat who was in the meeting.

“This is Trump’s strategy,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly recount the private meeting. “He raises the stakes, then he calms things down.”

Trump began the day at the Brussels residence of the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, where the president stayed the night and hosted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This was to be a perfunctory breakfast, but once reporters and cameramen were ushered into the room — “the legitimate media and the fake-news media,” as the president referred to the journalists — Trump exchanged more than typical diplomatic pleasantries with Stoltenberg.

“Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said. He added, “This has gone on for many presidents, but no other president brought it up like I bring it up.”

As Stoltenberg explained that many European countries as well as Canada had actually increased defense spending in the past year, Trump interrupted him.

“Why was that last year?” he asked.

Stoltenberg, appearing rattled, replied with fealty and praise: “Because of your leadership.”

The Russian pipeline to Germany that Trump is so mad about, explained

Trump then tore into Germany, whose leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is one of the most tenured NATO leaders and considered a consensus-builder in Europe. A cerebral physicist, she was especially close to President Barack Obama.

“I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia, where you’re supposed to be guarding against Russia,” Trump said, referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. “So you tell me, is that appropriate? I mean, I’ve been complaining about this from the time I got in. It should have never been allowed to have happened. But Germany is totally controlled by Russia.”

As Trump unspooled his case against Merkel, his aides looked stricken and stone-faced. Trump’s broadside set the tone for a summit that the Europeans feared could be contentious and perhaps even disastrous — especially after they watched him refuse to sign onto an agreement at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month and railed against NATO at a campaign rally last week in Montana.

“The rapid erosion of trust in Donald Trump, I’ve never seen anything like it for any of our post-World War II presidents,” said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “They’re infuriated at these persistent attacks on NATO. . . . They all listened to the Great Falls, Montana, speech and follow him on Twitter. There’s tremendous disappointment that an American leader would be so ungrateful and so mean-spirited.”

As European leaders arrived at the gleaming new glass-and-steel NATO headquarters here, they walked, one by one, along a royal-blue-carpeted entry path, where some were questioned about Trump’s comments.

Merkel answered by pointing to her personal experience growing up in East Germany, which was controlled by the Soviet Union, and stressing unified Germany’s independence from Russia and her country’s shared values with the United States.

As the 29 leaders strolled together through the headquarters atrium — the $1.4 billion fortress that Trump has complained about as an example of bureaucratic excess — Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron led the pack out to the sunny, tree-lined plaza where they posed for their “family photo.” Trump lingered behind them, chatting up Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the leaders stood at attention at their marked places on a blue carpet, smiling for the cameras, Trump fidgeted slightly and appeared bored, though he looked to the sky with interest when 25 helicopters flew overhead. He sidled up to British Prime Minister Theresa May — who is mired in a domestic political crisis and whom Trump had undermined a day earlier by praising her domestic rival, Boris Johnson — and took a photo with her, striking his signature thumb-up, wide-grin pose.

Trump has complained that such summits are largely a waste of his time, and he prefers one-on-one meetings with counterparts in which he can negotiate deals or gatherings where he is feted, such as his visits last year to China and Saudi Arabia.

White House advisers say Trump believes taking on foreign countries in multinational settings is good for him domestically, which is partly why he has so regularly accused a host of world leaders of taking advantage of the United States.

“He’s right,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “Every president in recent memory has pushed NATO to do more. . . . He’s been more forceful than others, but that’s what he ran on.”

Trump arrived at NATO headquarters here Wednesday later than most leaders and did not walk down the long path on which others strode and took questions. In the closed session, he listened only to some of the statements from the 29 allied leaders and left soon after he demanded in his own remarks that NATO allies double their defense spending commitments to 4 percent of their countries’ gross domestic product.

Trump’s call was striking considering the figure is not even met by the United States, which spends 3.58 percent of its GDP, and was viewed by NATO experts as a transparent ploy rather than a serious proposal.

“He’s using hyperbole to reinforce a negotiating tactic,” said Damon Wilson, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Our president is prone to seeking leverage through unusual negotiating tactics.”

Despite Trump’s public focus on Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, he barely discussed it in his private talks with Merkel, according to an official with knowledge of the meeting. When the two leaders met face-to-face on the sidelines of the summit, Merkel defended herself and Trump did not lash out at her, the official said. Rather, their conversation focused largely on immigration, trade and Syria.

“We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor,” Trump told reporters, with Merkel at his side. “We have a tremendous relationship with Germany.”

Trump had a similarly nonconfrontational meeting with Macron, the European counterpart with whom he has the warmest relationship. They spoke largely about trade, as well as energy and other issues, according to an official with knowledge of their discussion.

But there was one clear point of disagreement between the two men. When a reporter asked Macron whether he agrees with Trump that Merkel is beholden to the Russians, Trump interjected to try to cut off the conversation. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” he said.

Still, Macron gave his answer: “No.”

Despite their differences, the NATO leaders all signed onto a far-reaching declaration that any other U.S. administration would have touted as an unqualified success.

“On substance, this is one of the most successful NATO summits I’ve seen,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO.

He cited the alliance’s new training mission in Iraq and an initiative sought by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to get more NATO battalions, ships and planes ready for combat, a plan known as 30-30-30-30.

“There’s lot of substance here,” Stefanini said.

Derek Chollet, an Obama administration official, said the concrete progress during the meeting offered a surprising contrast to Trump’s rhetoric.

“There’s a fundamental disconnect in this administration, because many of the ideas that are being agreed to are U.S. ideas,” he said. “The 30-30-30 plan is a Mattis initiative. The Iraq training mission was a U.S.-driven decision to have a bigger NATO presence in Iraq.”

“Everyone’s saying this is good, but Trump is saying it’s going badly because fundamentally he’s a contrarian,” he said.

Just after Trump was whisked out of NATO headquarters in his motorcade, he punched out a combative tweet that again singled out Germany and even questioned the value of the overall alliance.

“What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?” Trump wrote.

Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.