Politics

Trump Shifts Tone on NATO, But Says He Could Pull Out Without Congress

Trump says he convinced allies to up spending, but NATO secretary-general stops short of agreeing with that

President Donald Trump, here at the Capitol last month, changed his tone about NATO as he was leaving a summit in Belgium. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump was in damage control mode Thursday morning, declaring a tense NATO summit a success even while saying he could withdraw the United States from the alliance without the consent of Congress.

The U.S. commander in chief spent Wednesday and Thursday morning lambasting other NATO members — especially Germany — and turned the annual alliance meeting into a spectacle of ill will amid whispers, including from some GOP lawmakers, that he was working to undermine it. But by midday Thursday in Brussels, Belgium, he was taking credit for allegedly securing pledges from the other leaders to pay more into NATO’s coffers.

Asked during an impromptu news conference if he believes he could simply remove the U.S. from the alliance without Congress approving such a move, he replied: “I think I probably can, but that’s not necessary.”

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Trump said he expects the United States will stay in the alliance because “people have stepped up,” meaning other NATO members have agreed to up their annual contributions to the military organization’s budget.

“We have a much stronger NATO than … two days ago,” he declared, contradicting a tweet he fired earlier Thursday before he arrived at the summit site.

In that social media post, the acknowledged that alliance members are spending “billions of additional dollars … at my request.” But he added “that isn’t nearly enough.”

Notably, former President Barack Obama and his first defense secretary, Robert Gates, also pushed member countries to spend more. To that end, however, Trump said Obama and former President George W. Bush talked about it but “nobody did anything about it.”

“Now, that’s changed,” he said, telling reporters NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg would be out later to tell them about an alleged agreement under which all alliance members would pay more than the 2 percent of their annual GDP pledge into NATO coffers. Presumably, that would include the United States, which Trump contended pays up to 90 percent even though defense budget experts put the American contribution in the mid-60s.

Stoltenberg stopped short of agreeing with Trump that allied leaders agreed to substantially increase their contributions to the alliance.

“The allies have heard his message loud and clear,” he told CNN, saying Trump’s demands are “having a real impact.”

“Now the trend is really going up,” Stoltenberg said.” All the allies agree we have to make good on the commitments we made.”

Trump reversed himself from Wednesday in which he wrote “What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?”

On Thursday he said “I believe in NATO,” calling it “probably the best ever” military alliance, presumably in world history.

Trump’s declaration that he — and he alone — secured a pact with the other 29 member states for all to increase their NATO contributions came after an emergency session among the leaders on Thursday morning on that topic.

“We’re paying for far too much of NATO,” he said. “But we’ve got it to a point people are paying a lot more money. [Stoltenberg] gives us, and in this case me, total credit.”

Whether or not that is an accurate statement will be decided when the secretary-general addresses reporters later in the day, however.

The Associated Press reported from the summit that French President Emmanuel Macron denied Trump’s claim of any joint promise to increase alliance contributions.

Macron told reporters the leaders agreed to “nothing more” than all countries getting to the 2 percent goal by 2024 that was spelled out in a communique on Wednesday evening.

Any promises the 29 other leaders might make to increase their NATO contributions would have to be approved by their legislatures, sometimes a very tall task.

Trump also had plenty to say when pressed by reporters about his coming Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

He open the possibility that he might recognize the Crimea region of Ukraine as part of Russia, even as soon as during the Putin one-on-one. He blamed the Russian invasion and occupation there on Obama, saying he would not have “allowed that to happen.”

[Trump Opens NATO Summit by Pitching a Fit]

As he was leaving the White House Tuesday morning for this NATO-UK-Helsinki swing, Trump told reporters he sees Putin as a “competitor” rather than a foe. And on Thursday, he again declined to say Putin — despite the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race - is an enemy.

“He’s not my enemy. Is he a friend? I don’t know him well enough,” Trump said, leaving open the possibility. “He’s been very nice to me.

“I hope we get along well. But, ultimately, he’s a competitor,” the president said. “It’s not a question of friend or my enemy. Maybe one day he could be my friend.”

Trump said the election meddling will come up during the Helsinki summit, as will Crimea and Syria. The president expects that will be a “loose meeting,” one without a “big schedule.”

And on Iran, Trump said he believes the government there is “feeling a lot of pain right now” due to tight sanctions.

“At some point, they’re going to call us and say, ‘Let’s make a deal,’” Trump said of the Iranian government. “And we’ll make a deal.”

The president also, as he does in many public speaking events, boasted about his 2016 election victory. And he repeated, for at least the third time, his false claim that former President Ronald Reagan never did something that he did in 2016: win Wisconsin in the general election.

"One of the states we won, Wisconsin, I didn’t realize this until fairly recently, that was the one state that Ronald Reagan didn’t win when he ran the board his second time," Trump said. "He didn’t win Wisconsin and we won Wisconsin."

Only that Reagan did - both in 1980 and 1984. The "second time," as Trump described the 1984 race, Reagan lost only Minnesota.

Watch: McConnell Says 'Nothing Wrong' With Trump, Putin Meeting

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