BRUSSELS — President Trump jolted a NATO summit on Thursday with a last-minute demand that leaders immediately pour billions into their military budgets, raising questions about his commitment to the alliance, before he reiterated that the United States would still fight on behalf of its Western allies.
“I believe in NATO,” Trump declared in a news conference.
Trump’s demand that allies bolster their defense budgets to 2 percent of gross domestic product by January — an acceleration by six years of their current commitments — stunned his fellow leaders, who would have had to scramble their national spending to make the goal. Some diplomats perceived his comments as threatening a U.S. withdrawal from NATO.
Ultimately, Trump declared victory in his quest to shake new pledges from allies.
“I told people that I’d be very unhappy if they did not up their commitments very substantially,” Trump told reporters. “Everyone has agreed to substantially up their commitment. They’re going to up it at levels that they’ve never thought of before.”
But in the wake of the hours of urgent, Trump-created chaos, it was unclear whether leaders had agreed to anything new. The leaders of France and Italy disputed Trump’s assertions, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who is loath to contradict the mercurial U.S. president, repeatedly dodged questions seeking precision.
“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he wrapped up the summit. “We understand that this American president is very serious about defense spending, and this is having a clear impact.”
NATO member nations committed in 2014 to each spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Only eight countries will hit the bar this year, and seven more have unveiled road maps to meet the goal on time.
“Ultimately, that will be going up quite a bit higher than that,” Trump said at the news conference, after privately calling Wednesday on leaders to double their commitments to 4 percent of GDP.
Trump pointed to what he said were $33 billion in NATO defense spending increases this year as evidence that his push was having an effect. In fact, U.S. allies plan to increase spending by $11 billion this year. He also said, inaccurately, that NATO nations had been decreasing their spending until he was elected. They began their spending increases after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although the increases have accelerated in response to Trump.
It was a freewheeling end to an unusual summit that Trump opened Wednesday with a broadside attack on Germany, which he said was “captive to Russia” because of its imports of Russian natural gas.
Later sessions were calm, even exaggeratedly polite, lulling allies into a sense that they had escaped the wrath of a leader who has often spoken of NATO in cutting terms. A Wednesday dinner was cordial, with Trump boasting about media coverage of his June summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
But on Thursday, Trump came ready to tussle.
He used a session intended for discussion of Georgia and Ukraine — two countries that have sparred with Russia — to trumpet his spending concerns and rail against European countries, including Germany and Spain, for failing to contribute more to their defenses and relying too heavily on the security umbrella of the United States.
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. The comments appeared open to interpretation, and some officials and leaders said they never felt Trump was threatening a full pullout from NATO.
Trump last week told senior aides that he was going to make threats about defense spending and that he was determined to flip the table over before he left, a senior administration official said ahead of Thursday’s drama, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive summit planning.
Brussels received the message.
“Everyone in the room understood we would be coming to a disaster if we did not resolve this situation today,” one of the officials present for the conversation said. The official said there was fear that Trump could repeat his performance at the Group of Seven summit last month, when he pulled his consent from the closing declaration in a fit of pique after first agreeing to it. If that happened at NATO, diplomats said, the alliance could devolve into crisis.
Trump read out the spending figures for every single NATO nation, sometimes telling leaders sarcastically, “My friend, you’re so nice to me. I’m sorry you’re spending so little,” one of the officials said. 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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been talking about Germany spending 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024, recommitted to spending 2 percent by that date, the official said. But such a change would be subject to parliamentary approval, and another diplomat said no absolute commitment had been given. There may be considerable wiggle room for leaders to do nothing new, many officials said. Leaders explained to Trump that because they were beholden to lawmakers, they could not make firm pledges on the spot.
The demands sent “everyone into a tailspin,” according to a third diplomat briefed on the morning’s events.
In a news conference afterward, Merkel did not announce any new pledges but said that “there was a clear commitment to NATO by all.”
She said that the meeting was a continuation of what has been discussed for months.
“We made clear that we’re on the way,” she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron also said that leaders agreed to live up to their existing spending goals. “Everybody committed to raise spending, as it was agreed in 2014. Everybody confirmed this trajectory,” Macron told reporters after the meetings.
But he said he questioned whether Trump’s push for even higher spending goals made sense. “I don’t even know if it is a good measure and fits our collective security,” he said.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters that “there is no additional spending” from Italy, even as he said that it was reasonable to discuss how countries share the burdens.
After the morning’s drama, reporters were left to sort out just how far Trump was willing to push in his negotiations with allies.
“His remarks were essentially a bombshell that went off and caused NATO officials to scramble to interpret what he meant,” said Amanda Sloat, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
At the news conference, Trump was asked whether he could withdraw the United States from NATO without congressional approval. The president replied, “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary.” (He would need Senate approval.)
At a nearby forum sponsored by NATO and three foreign policy think tanks, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) sought to soothe nervous allies, emphasizing that Capitol Hill still fully supports the 29-member alliance.
“There is no applause line for ‘Let’s get out of NATO,’ ” he said.
“Again, ladies and gentlemen, the American Congress weighs in on all these matters,” Tillis said. “Unlike Russia . . . we have coequal branches that weigh in to these matters.”
Josh Dawsey, John Hudson, Seung Min Kim and Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.