Until Thursday morning, President Trump’s meetings with NATO leaders went about as expected, meaning that he spent most of his time in Belgium attacking allies – particularly Germany – for not paying their “fair share” of defense spending. “I expected bad, and I kept telling people to expect bad, but it is still surreal to see,” a current NATO official told the Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Things got worse.
The president reportedly showed up 30 minutes late on the summit’s final morning, skipped meetings with a few leaders and then forced an emergency session in which he told member nations that unless they met their 2 percent defense spending target by January, he would “do his own thing.” This was followed by a wild, 35-minute press conference during which Trump claimed he got everyone “up to 2 percent” and that everything was fine. “To see the level of spirit in that room is incredible,” Trump said before fielding questions from reporters. “They stepped up their commitment, and stepped it up like they never have before.”
Despite the sharp reversal of tone, nothing seems to have actually changed. NATO’s nations had already pledged to earmark 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending by 2024. Though Trump reportedly demanded they meet the mark by January, during the press conference he explained that it would take place over a “number of years.” French President Emmanuel Macron refuted Trump’s claim almost immediately after he left the podium, bringing to mind the confusion over what exactly had been agreed upon following last month’s G-7 summit.
BREAKING: French President Macron denies Trump claim that NATO powers agreed to increase defense spending beyond previous targets.
— The Associated Press (@AP) July 12, 2018
Trump flew from the G-7 summit to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong-un, and wanted to project strength before sitting down with the dictator. The same principle applies as the president leaves this week’s NATO summit. On July 16th, Trump will travel to Helsinki, Finland, to meet with Vladimir Putin. Concern has abounded as to what Trump might promise the Russian leader, for whom he has expressed nothing but admiration. The president didn’t quell any fears while answering questions Thursday morning.
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When asked about whether he will recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Trump blamed the hostile takeover that got the nation booted from the G-8 on Barack Obama. “That was not on Trump’s watch,” he said. “Would I have allowed it to happen? No, I would not have allowed it to happen. He did allow it to happen. That was his determination.”
“What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That I can’t tell you,” the president added.
Russia’s hostile presence in the region has persisted since the 2014 annexation, and NATO member nations have been worried that Trump may move to scale back America’s military presence at the request of Putin. Trump made a similar promise to Kim Jong-un last month, announcing that the United States would suspend all joint military exercises with South Korea. His rationale was that they were too expensive, but on Wednesday it was reported that the canceled Freedom Guardian operation would have only cost the U.S. $14 million. When asked about whether he would stop American military exercises in the Baltic if Putin asks him to, Trump wasn’t very reassuring. “Perhaps we’ll talk about that,” he said.
On the agenda in Helsinki is discussion of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which Trump still publicly doubts despite the consensus reached by U.S. intelligence. When asked about it Thursday, the president continued to refuse to take the attack on America’s democratic system seriously. “He may very well deny,” said Trump, who softens up whenever Putin is mentioned. “What can I do?”
Before Trump heads to Finland, he will stop in the United Kingdom, where several protests are planned to coincide with his arrival. Trump didn’t seem concerned on Thursday morning, though, claiming that “they like me a lot in the U.K.” before discussing his “magical” golf club in Turnberry, Scotland. Though the links course may indeed offer a majestic view of Scottish coast, public opinion isn’t so favorable to the American president.
11% of Brits approve of Trump, according to recent polls. About 75% approved of Obama during much of his presidency. https://t.co/tU4XoWfx05
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) July 12, 2018
Claiming that people love him in the U.K. was one of several absurd – or, in Trump’s case, relatively standard – moments during the press conference, which at times felt more like one of his campaign-style rallies across the American heartland. At one point, apropos of nothing, he brought up his electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton, noting that he won Wisconsin, the only state Ronald Reagan lost in his 1984 landslide victory over Walter Mondale. It’s not the first time Trump has made this claim, which isn’t true (Minnesota, not Wisconsin, was the only state Reagan lost). Trump also on Thursday dusted off his “very stable genius” line, a distinction he tweeted about himself in January in response to questions about his mental health.
Donald Trump is asked whether he'll be saying one thing at NATO and tweeting another after he departs.
— Bloomberg (@business) July 12, 2018
The fallout from Trump’s contentious, confusing stay in Belgium remains to be seen, but it did bring the president plenty of attention, which in the end is all he seems to care about. According to the Washington Post, at a NATO dinner Wednesday night, Trump boasted about his meeting with Kim Jong-un. He didn’t seem to care as much about the results – which aren’t looking very favorable for the U.S. – as about how much media coverage the event received. “They have 1,000 cameras at the Oscars and we had 6,000 cameras in Singapore,” he reportedly told legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus over the phone. “The buzz was fantastic.”
Meanwhile, the future of liberal democracy is jeopardy.