BRUSSELS (AP) — President Donald Trump went into a NATO summit Wednesday with claims a natural gas pipeline deal has left Germany “totally controlled” and “captive to Russia” as he lobbed complaints about allies’ “delinquent” defense spending during the opening of what was expected to be a fraught two-day meeting.
Trump also suggested NATO allies commit to spending 4 percent of their gross domestic product on defense — double the current goal of 2 percent by 2024.
The president, in an exchange with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that kicked off his visit, took issue with the U.S. protecting Germany as it strikes deals with Russia.
“I have to say, I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia,” Trump said at a breakfast with Stoltenberg. “We’re supposed to protect you against Russia, but they’re paying billions of dollars to Russia and I think that’s very inappropriate.”
Trump repeatedly described Germany as “captive to Russia” because of the energy deal and urged NATO to look into the issue.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back firmly, insisting Germany makes its own decisions and drawing on her own background growing up in communist East Germany behind the Iron Curtain.
“I’ve experienced myself a part of Germany controlled by the Soviet Union and I’m very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany and can thus say that we can determine our own policies and make our own decisions and that’s very good,” she said.
The president appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring gas from Russia to Germany’s northeastern Baltic coast, bypassing Eastern European nations like Poland and Ukraine and doubling the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany. The vast undersea pipeline is opposed by the U.S. and some other EU members, who warn it could give Moscow greater leverage over Western Europe. It’s expected to be online at the end of 2019.
Environmental-conscious Germany is trying to reduce its reliance on coal and is phasing out nuclear power by 2022, so it hopes to use natural gas to partially fill the gap until the country’s electricity grid can cope with fluctuating levels provided by renewable energy. The alternatives, including U.S. supplies, are more expensive.
In their back-and-forth, Stoltenberg stressed to Trump NATO members have been able to work together despite their differences. “I think that two world wars and the Cold War taught us that we are stronger together than apart,” he told the president, trying to calm tensions.
Trump’s dramatic exchange with Stoltenberg set the tone for what was already expected to be a tense day of meetings with leaders of the military alliance as Trump presses NATO allies about their military spending ahead of his meeting next week with Putin.
“The United States is paying far too much and other countries are not paying enough, especially some. So we’re going to have a meeting on that,” Trump said, describing the situation as “disproportionate and not fair to the taxpayers of the United States.”
“They will spend more,” he later predicted. “I have great confidence they’ll be spending more.”
And with that, he went on to push allies at the summit to double their commitment on defense spending.
“During the president’s remarks today at the NATO summit, he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4 percent,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. She said the president raised the same issue at NATO last year and, “Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and, at a very minimum, meet their already stated obligations.”
However, a formal summit declaration issued by the NATO leaders Wednesday reaffirmed their “unwavering commitment” to the 2 percent pledge set in 2014 and made no reference to any effort to get to 4 percent.
Trump’s pipeline criticism was an unusual line of attack for a president who has proclaimed himself eager to improve relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to undermine Western democracy by meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Trump win. Trump has long argued improving relaxations with Russia would be good for both nations.
Back in the U.S., Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer issued a joint statement describing Trump’s “brazen insults and denigration of one of America’s most steadfast allies, Germany,” as “an embarrassment.”
“His behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies,” they wrote.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch also took issue with Trump, saying “I don’t agree with that. Germans wouldn’t agree with that. They are a very strong people.”
However, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a supporter of the president, said the pipeline issue strikes at the “heart of NATO unity.”