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Trump throws NATO summit into crisis mode with demands, before switching and claiming victory

By Eli Stokols • Jul 12, 2018 at 11:00 AM

BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump threw the annual NATO summit deeper into crisis Thursday — forcing an emergency session and suggesting the United States could leave the nearly 70-year-old alliance — before switching positions and claiming victory.

As the summit closed, the president held an unexpected news conference, taking credit for having secured firmer commitments from all 28 other member nations to increase their spending on defense.

It was unclear, however, if any of the NATO members had actually made any significantly new commitments to spending beyond what they’d agreed to in 2014, under President Barack Obama.

French President Emmanuel Macron said no new commitments had been made.

NATO allies, Trump said, have committed to meet the already agreed-to goal of allocating an amount equal to 2 percent of each nation’s gross domestic product toward defense spending, and that he would like to see the benchmark raised to 4 percent eventually.

“Yesterday, I let them know I was extremely unhappy with what was happening. And now we’re very happy. We have a very powerful, very strong NATO — much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said at the 35-minute news conference here.

“After 2 percent, we’ll start talking about going higher,” Trump said.

The comments marked a major rhetorical reversal from Trump, who on Wednesday dismissed NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s attempts to hail the increased military budgets that members already have achieved in the last four years, calling the increases insignificant.

Trump, whose spending demands and antagonistic remarks about Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel at Wednesday’s summit opening had already strained relationships with longtime allies, remarked on the “great collegial spirit” among allies as the summit concluded.

He also asserted that Russia, whose recent aggressions in Europe have given the defensive alliance renewed purpose, would be further constrained by more robust NATO spending.

“I don’t think that’s helping Russia,” he said.

Trump did not say whether he explicitly threatened to leave NATO should the other nations not increase their spending, only saying, “I told people that I’d be very unhappy.”

He did, however, claim that he had the right to make such a move without the approval of Congress — an assertion certain to unnerve allies as well as American lawmakers overwhelmingly supportive of NATO.

“I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary,” he said.

A day after tweeting “What good is NATO?” Trump spoke in his most glowing terms ever about the alliance, a pillar of the post-World War II democratic order and one that he repeatedly called “obsolete” as a presidential candidate.

“I believe in NATO,” Trump said. “I believe it’s probably the greatest ever done.”

Taking numerous questions from the international press corps, Trump offered a preview of his meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he described as “a competitor.”

He deflected a question about whether he would rebuke Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea, which NATO holds as “illegal,” again blaming Obama for allowing it to happen. Recently Trump had suggested he would acquiesce in Russia’s annexation.

Trump did say he would be bringing up the subject of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, but was prepared for Putin to deny such activities.

“I can only say ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again,’” he said.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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