Trump spec­ta­cle leaves NATO al­lies with “whiplash”.

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Michael Birnbaum

BRUS­SELS — The NATO sum­mit was con­clud­ing on course here Thurs­day, with Euro­pean lead­ers pleased that their un­ruly Amer­i­can coun­ter­part had been sur­pris­ingly well be­haved, if not truly con­cil­ia­tory. Their planes were get­ting gassed up at the air­port, and they were ready to call the whole she­bang a suc­cess and jet home.

Then Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump showed up, a half-hour late and with an­other agenda. He ef­fec­tively took a meet­ing over Ge­or­gia and Ukraine hostage by seiz­ing the floor and, one by one, scold­ing and sham­ing coun­tries for their de­fense spend­ing.

Trump was on such a tear that some diplo­mats said they feared he could well try to with­draw the United States from NATO, rup­tur­ing the ex­ist­ing world or­der. For more than an hour, the transat­lantic al­liance was caught in the chaos of Trump’s mak­ing — un­til the pres­i­dent called an im­promptu news con­fer­ence to an­nounce that every­thing, in fact, was just fine.

“I be­lieve in NATO,” Trump said, claim­ing credit for forc­ing Western al­lies to raise their de­fense spend­ing to “lev­els never thought of be­fore.” He called the al­liance “a fine-tuned ma­chine,” re­mark­ing that there had been “great unity, great spirit, great esprit de corps.”

Thurs­day’s events in Brus­sels were a sig­na­ture Trump spec­ta­cle, with other pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters cast as bit play­ers in his drama. Trump was un­pre­dictable and un­re­li­able. He was di­rect and at mo­ments crass with the United States’ his­tor­i­cal part­ners, vague on sub­stance and mis­lead­ing with facts and fig­ures. He grabbed the spot­light for him­self, send­ing the en­tire Western al­liance scram­bling to sat­isfy his whims and de­sires — “whiplash,” as one at­tend­ing diplo­mat put it.

And he de­clared un­prece­dented vic­tory, though his part­ners said lit­tle new had ac­tu­ally been agreed upon.

NATO mem­ber na­tions com­mit­ted in 2014 to each spend 2 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct on de­fense by 2024. Trump claimed, with­out speci­ficity, that he had se­cured newly ac­cel­er­ated spend­ing in­creases from al­lies, but the lead­ers of France and Italy said the pre­ex­ist­ing pledges had not changed.

“This epit­o­mizes his ap­proach to diplo­macy, which is on again, off again, give a lit­tle and take a lot,” said Dou­glas Lute, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to NATO. “Com­plete un­pre­dictabil­ity. I sup­pose he thinks he gen­er­ates some kind of lever­age, but he ac­tu­ally im­parts un­cer­tainty and doubt. His im­pact on the al­liance is quite se­vere.”

Sev­eral of­fi­cials who had been in the room when Trump amped up the tem­per­a­ture ap­peared phys­i­cally ex­hausted af­ter­ward. One let out a full-body shud­der. An­other, a long, ner­vous belly laugh.

In Thurs­day’s ses­sion, as Trump com­man­deered the con­ver­sa­tion, he be­rated and ha­rassed in­di­vid­ual lead­ers over de­fense spend­ing. He had fig­ures at the ready, in­di­cat­ing his as­sault was or­ches­trated. And, in com­ments open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, 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.

At one point, Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg tried to calm his tirade and pro­mote unity within the al­liance, but Trump snapped.

“No, we are not play­ing this game,” Trump said, ac­cord­ing to one of­fi­cial who was present. “Other pres­i­dents have done this, but I’m not go­ing to.”

Pre­dictably, Trump’s moves sparked dis­may within the U.S. for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the pres­i­dent’s per­for­mance “dis­ap­point­ing, yet ul­ti­mately un­sur­pris­ing.”

“There is lit­tle use in pars­ing the pres­i­dent’s mis­state­ments and blus­ter, ex­cept to say that they are the words of one man,” McCain said in a state­ment.

Trump sees his dis­rup­tion abroad as a po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit at home, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said. As he de­parted Brus­sels and scrolled through Twit­ter, read head­lines and watched U.S. cable news cov­er­age, Trump saw an up­side: The pres­i­dent was de­picted as fight­ing for the United States and knock­ing heads in Old Europe. For Trump, his ad­vis­ers said, there is no ben­e­fit to trav­el­ing overseas and play­ing nice.

So when on Wednes­day he ex­co­ri­ated Ger­many for be­ing “cap­tive” to Rus­sia and abruptly called on NATO coun­tries to dou­ble their de­fense-spend­ing com­mit­ments to 4 per­cent of GDP, and then on Thurs­day sent lead­ers into an emer­gency ses­sion, Trump’s mind was as much fo­cused on his sup­port­ers at his “Make Amer­ica Great Again” cam­paign ral­lies as on any bu­reau­crat in the gleam­ing glas­sand-steel NATO head­quar­ters.

Kellyanne Con­way, coun­selor to the pres­i­dent, com­pared Trump’s ac­tions at NATO to his de­ci­sion to re­lo­cate the U.S. Em­bassy in Is­rael to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

“It’s like with Jerusalem,” Con­way said. “You have decades of pres­i­dents — right, left and cen­ter — talk­ing this way and gen­tly push­ing for 2 per­cent. You’ve got this pres­i­dent do­ing some­thing about it.”

Don­ald Trump

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