The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Whiplash’: Inside Trump’s NATO ambush, a signature spectacle casting allies as bit players

The view from behind a TV-camera control light as President Trump addresses a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

BRUSSELS — The NATO summit was concluding on course here Thursday, with European leaders pleased that their unruly American counterpart had been surprisingly well behaved, if not truly conciliatory. Their planes were getting gassed up at the airport, and they were ready to call the whole shebang a success and jet home.

Then President Trump showed up, a half-hour late and with another agenda. He effectively took a meeting over Georgia and Ukraine hostage by seizing the floor and, one by one, scolding and shaming countries for their defense spending.

Trump was on such a tear that some diplomats said they feared he could well try to withdraw the United States from NATO, rupturing the existing world order. For more than an hour, the transatlantic alliance was caught in the chaos of Trump’s making — until the president called an impromptu news conference to announce that everything, in fact, was just fine.

“I believe in NATO,” Trump said, claiming credit for forcing Western allies to raise their defense spending to “levels never thought of before.” He called the alliance “a fine-tuned machine,” remarking that there had been “great unity, great spirit, great esprit de corps.”

Thursday’s events in Brussels were a signature Trump spectacle, with other presidents and prime ministers cast as bit players in his drama. Trump was unpredictable and unreliable. He was direct and at moments crass with the United States’ historical partners, vague on substance and misleading with facts and figures. He grabbed the spotlight for himself, sending the entire Western alliance scrambling to satisfy his whims and desires — “whiplash,” as one attending diplomat put it.

And he declared unprecedented victory, though his partners said little new had actually been agreed upon.

NATO member nations committed in 2014 to each spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Trump claimed, without specificity, that he had secured newly accelerated spending increases from allies, but the leaders of France and Italy said the preexisting pledges had not changed.

“This epitomizes his approach to diplomacy, which is on again, off again, give a little and take a lot,” said Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “Complete unpredictability. I suppose he thinks he generates some kind of leverage, but he actually imparts uncertainty and doubt. His impact on the alliance is quite severe.”

Trump claims allies make new defense spending commitments

Several officials who had been in the room when Trump amped up the temperature appeared physically exhausted afterward. One let out a full-body shudder. Another, a long, nervous belly laugh.

In Thursday’s session, as Trump commandeered the conversation, he berated and harassed individual leaders over defense spending. He had figures at the ready, indicating his assault was orchestrated. And, in comments open to interpretation, Trump told his counterparts that if they did not meet their 2 percent targets by January he would “do his own thing,” according to two officials briefed on the meeting.

At one point, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to calm his tirade and promote unity within the alliance, but Trump snapped.

“No, we are not playing this game,” Trump said, according to one official who was present. “Other presidents have done this, but I’m not going to.”

Predictably, Trump’s moves sparked dismay within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the president’s performance “disappointing, yet ultimately unsurprising.”

“There is little use in parsing the president’s misstatements and bluster, except to say that they are the words of one man,” McCain said in a statement.

Trump sees his disruption abroad as a political benefit at home, administration officials said. As he departed Brussels and scrolled through Twitter, read headlines and watched U.S. cable news coverage, Trump saw an upside: The president was depicted as fighting for the United States and knocking heads in Old Europe. For Trump, his advisers said, there is no benefit to traveling overseas and playing nice.

So when on Wednesday he excoriated Germany for being “captive” to Russia and abruptly called on NATO countries to double their defense-spending commitments to 4 percent of GDP, and then on Thursday sent leaders into an emergency session, Trump’s mind was as much focused on his supporters at his “Make America Great Again” campaign rallies as on any bureaucrat in the gleaming glass-and-steel NATO headquarters.

“Trump voters view this as an issue of fairness,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser. “You have the ivory-tower elite that thinks you should keep doing things the exact same way and that should be accepted as fact. That’s why people love him, that he doesn’t do that.”

The Fix: Trump tips his hand on his thinking about Putin

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, compared Trump’s actions at NATO to his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

“It’s like with Jerusalem,” Conway said. “You have decades of presidents — right, left and center — talking this way and gently pushing for 2 percent. You’ve got this president doing something about it.”

Trump came to the summit ready to shake up allies but undecided about how he would do it, according to a senior White House official. One idea was to threaten to slash U.S. defense spending to match the leading European country. He went on the fly with a demand to double defense spending commitments to levels not even met by the United States — but it was more “to change the conversation,” one adviser said, even as he forced other allies to contend with what many leaders said was an outlandish request.

Ahead of the trip, Trump complained to advisers about how some countries chose to channel their budgets away from defense. Germany, in particular, came in for ire because of the money it spends to assimilate migrants, who poured into the nation during a 2015 crisis. He complained about allies paying for the $1.4 billion price tag of the NATO headquarters building but not for their militaries. He was derisive of the whole organization, one official said.

But only a portion of that carried through on the first day of the summit, officials said. Although he blasted Germany in a breakfast meeting with Stoltenberg, he was polite — even conventional — in later meetings throughout the day, leading European leaders to believe they had dodged what all were expecting would be a contentious encounter.

At a dinner with other leaders and their spouses, Trump was on “excruciatingly good behavior,” said one attendee. He spent the evening bragging about the press turnout at his recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to a second attendee. This official said Trump told his counterparts that he had recently called golfer Jack Nicklaus to boast: “They have 1,000 cameras at the Oscars, and we had 6,000 cameras in Singapore. The buzz was fantastic.”

Officials said their nerves were frayed by Trump’s erratic performance — and perhaps that was exactly the point.

“He goes after Germany, and then he seems happy at dinner, and then he’s acting like he wants to end NATO, and then he’s saying how great NATO is and how he loves NATO,” said a foreign official who attended the summit. “No one has any idea what he will really do, and my sense is that he likes it that way.”

The official, like many others who commented on the interactions in the private meetings, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating or angering the U.S. delegation.

As Trump rattles NATO, 42% of Germans now want U.S. troops out of the country

Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, said Trump had been in a good mood at the dinner. But he reminded reporters that Trump had wireless Internet on Air Force One, so he could change his tune on Twitter.

Asked at his news conference whether he might attack NATO on Twitter after praising it at the lectern — as he has frequently done after similar meetings — Trump said: “No, that’s other people that do that. I don’t. I’m very consistent. I’m a very stable genius.”

Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist who has been in London this week meeting with far-right nationalists who are campaigning to break up the European Union, said Trump “makes the establishment look foolish.”

“They are having all this happy talk and defending positions that the math simply does not support,” Bannon said.

Here at NATO, Stoltenberg and other officials said the disruption — as sweat-inducing as it may have been for Washington’s allies — may also have been salutary, knocking leaders away from the tightly scripted talking points that are ritual for this type of meeting.

“Without pre-written manuscripts,” Stoltenberg said, “we all developed a better understanding of the challenges, the urgency of spending more.”

Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe, after helping host an array of Western leaders at a sideline forum, said Trump “decided to declare victory, but it wasn’t until after some torturous twists and turns along the way.”

Dawsey reported from London.