President Donald Trump, speaking at a ceremony Thursday to dedicate a memorial to NATO’s resolve in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, publicly chastised his fellow alliance leaders for not being “fair” to U.S. taxpayers.
Trump used the occasion of his maiden summit with NATO leaders in Brussels, where he was invited to dedicate the September 2001 memorial, to remind the alliance that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying,” and that they owe “massive amounts” from past years.
European leaders who gathered from across the alliance gazed at Trump without expression and offered modest applause at the end of a speech that he began by asking for a moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of Monday’s terrorist attack in Manchester, England, that killed 22 and wounded many more.
Addressing British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump said, “May all the nations here grieve with you and stand with you.” The attack, he said, “demonstrates the depths of the evil we face with terrorism.”
Trump did not refer to May’s irritation, expressed earlier in the day, over what British officials have said was the leak to U.S. news media of intelligence information gathered in the investigation of the Manchester case.
“We have strong relations with the United States, our closest partner,” May told reporters as she entered NATO’s $1.2 billion new headquarters for the ceremony, “and that is, of course, built on trust. Part of that is knowing intelligence can be shared confidently, and I will make clear to President Trump that intelligence shared with law enforcement agencies must be secure.”
Trump is already under fire at home for violating intelligence agreements, following a Washington Post report that he revealed sensitive information on the Islamic State, obtained from Israel, to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to Washington.
In a presidential statement issued while Trump was at the ceremony, he called the Manchester leaks “deeply troubling,” vowed to “get to the bottom” of them and called for a full investigation by U.S. agencies.
The statement added: “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security. I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no relationship we cherish more than the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Trump’s speech was likely to disappoint leaders who had hoped for a public commitment from the U.S. president to NATO’s security guarantees, which he called into question during his presidential campaign last year when he said he would check a country’s defense spending before coming to its aid. Trump’s Cabinet officials have made the direct pledge in recent months, but top officials of other NATO allies said that Trump’s personal guarantee would eliminate any lingering doubts.
A senior administration official said that no one should “read into” Trump’s remarks any lack of U.S. commitment to the alliance’s collective defense obligations.
“The intent was to deliver a direct message, which he’s done before,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to expand on Trump’s remarks. “He’s been direct with them in rallies in speeches. He wanted to give the same message that he’s been giving when NATO leaders are present or are not present. It’s the same message he gave on the campaign trail, it’s the same message he gives to the American people, and it’s the same message he gives to leaders one on one.”
Trump’s “confrontational approach has yielded results so far,” the official said. “A lot more countries have stepped up and said we’re going to meet this target sooner.”
Trump began his day in Brussels at a meeting with European Union leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.
Speaking after the half-hour session, Tusk, president of the European Council, said pointedly that the West needs to concentrate on “values, not just interests.”
“Values and principles first, this is what we – Europe and America – should be saying,” Tusk told reporters. Tusk, who has expressed concern before about the new U.S. administration, said he and Trump agreed on counterterrorism, but did not see eye to eye on a number of other issues, including climate change, trade and Russia.
The E.U. meeting provided Trump with a taste of what he was likely to hear at a working dinner Thursday night with NATO leaders, just as his memorial speech indicated some of what they could expect to hear from him.
After the E.U. meeting, Trump had a private lunch with new French President Emmanuel Macron at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, where he is staying in Brussels. Trump greeted Macron at the door with a handshake and a hearty ,”How are you?” as Macron stepped out of his black limousine. France has urged Trump not to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, a decision he has hinted at but that the administration says has not yet been made.
On this fourth and penultimate stop on Trump’s nine-day trip, the first overseas travel of his presidency, Trump is unlikely to find the near adulation he experienced from Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, and from the Israeli government in Jerusalem.
At those stops, they agreed with Trump’s call to concentrate on counterterrorism and economic growth, with no discussion, at least in public, about human and civil rights concerns that had dogged U.S.-Middle East relationships under President Barack Obama.
NATO’s leaders used the excuse of the vast new headquarters to invite the former real estate mogul for a ribbon-cutting, even though construction on the site – a former military airfield – is not yet finished. Beyond its official purpose, however, the meeting was designed to allow Trump and NATO to take the measure of each other. In addition to talking about values, climate change, trade and Russia, the 27 other members hope to relieve anxiety that arose during Trump’s campaign, when he questioned why the United States was spending its own money to defend Europe, called NATO “obsolete” and ill-equipped to deal with terrorism, and threatened to withdraw if other members failed to pay their “fair share.”
Administration officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have publicly tempered some of those views since Trump’s inauguration. Mattis has said that the U.S. commitment to NATO members’ pledge to defend each other, under Article 5 of the alliance’s charter, is “rock solid.”
Some allies feel the golden word of the president would finalize the message to Russia and others across the NATO border. It still could come up in their private conversations over dinner.
“That would be important if the president personally and explicitly states it,” said Latvian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Andrejs Pildegovics, who was in Brussels for the meeting. “At the end of the day, all important decisions are made by the president. And usually the president has a few options on the table.”
NATO has officially pledged that all members will reach the goal of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted Thursday morning that overall spending among members has been up for two years in a row, and he said he anticipated that increases would now speed up as the alliance addresses the terrorist threat.
He said NATO was ready to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State – to which all individual members already belong – although he said NATO would not have a combat role on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Among increased contributions to counterterrorism, he said the alliance would step up support of NATO AWACS planes and intelligence-sharing, and provide refueling capabilities.
“We will now establish a new intelligence fusion cell at the headquarters addressing terrorism, including foreign fights.
“And we will also appoint a special coordinator for NATO’s efforts fighting terrorism,” Stoltenberg said. He called it a “strong political message,” as well as a practical one.
Stoltenberg also said NATO would consider increasing its noncombat troop presence in Afghanistan. The administration is currently reviewing its own presence there, including adding up to 5,000 troops to the nearly 10,000 already on the ground and expanding their role assisting Afghan government forces fighting both the Taliban and a local Islamic State presence.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Wednesday that “we have not completed the Afghan policy review,” which he said is “probably a couple of weeks away at least before we’re going to be ready to present something to the president.”
Trump’s packed schedule in a city he once called a “hellhole” took him from one meeting to another with partners and allies who wondered which president would show up: the disciplined script-bound leader who has made mostly conventional public remarks during his international trip, or the one who has kept them in the crosshairs.
Tusk, in his comments after meeting Trump, hinted at a mild clash at least. “My main message to President Trump,” he said, “was that what gives our cooperation and friendship its deepest meaning are fundamental Western values, like freedom, human rights, respect for human dignity. The greatest task today is the consolidation of the whole free world around those values, not just interests.”
But most national delegations eagerly anticipated Trump’s speech at the 2001 memorial. In it, Trump gave no specific commitment to Article 5, the collective security provision that has been invoked only once – following the September 2001 attacks. “Our NATO allies responded swiftly and successfully, invoking for the first time the Article 5 commitment,” Trump recalled.
His travels over the past week, Trump said, have “given me renewed hope that nation . . . can unite to defeat” the common threat of terrorism. But rather than talk about NATO’s role in that struggle, Trump recalled the “historic gathering of Arab and Muslim leaders” he attended last weekend in Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman, he said, is “a wise man, who wants to see things get much better rapidly.”
Echoing remarks he made in Riyadh, Trump said that “all people who cherish life must unite in finding, reexposing and removing these terrorists and extremists. And, yes, losers. They are losers. . . . Drive them out and never let them back in.”
“The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders,” he said in his only reference to Russia. It was the Soviet Union that gave rise to NATO’s existence, and the alliance has been in conflict with the Russian Federation over Ukraine, although Trump did not mention that specifically.
Most of his remarks were focused on Monday. “I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenburg and members of the alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations,” Trump said.
Even the 2 percent of their gross domestic products that members have agreed to spend on defense is “insufficient,” he said. “Two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats.”
Immediately after his speech, the subdued leaders gathered for a “family photograph” – a standard feature of such summits. As they chatted among themselves, Trump was left alone at the podium.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker, Karen Deyoung, Michael Birnbaum