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What Trump Got Out Of The NATO Summit


President Trump wrapped up a tumultuous appearance at NATO in Brussels with an unscheduled press conference this morning.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I think we're going to be ultimately treated fairly on trade. We'll see what happens. But I can tell you that NATO now is really a fine-tuned machine. People are paying money that they never paid before. They're happy to do it. And the United States is being treated much more fairly.

KING: Trump had earlier called NATO allies delinquent for not spending enough of their GDP on defense. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, has been following this NATO summit. She's with us now.

Good morning, Mara.


KING: What was so remarkable about this press conference was that it seemed to stray very far from how the president started the summit. He seemed to make a threat that the U.S. might withdraw from NATO.

LIASSON: That's right. In a closed-door meeting, we are hearing from reports, he threatened to go it alone if the NATO countries didn't immediately start spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. And then it's almost as if he said never mind. And he took - finally took yes for an answer and came out and said he had succeeded in getting his demands met. But until we know all the details, it sounds like all NATO has agreed to is what they already had, which was to meet the 2 percent threshold in a certain number of years. Maybe they'll get there at a slightly faster rate. But if you look at this in terms of political theater, which - or producing a reality television show. The president goes over there. He blusters. He threatens. And he succeeds in just 24 hours. It kind of reminds me of North Korea. He went over there. He had one meeting and then said there's no more nuclear threat from North Korea.

But it doesn't seem that he got anything more than what he was already getting. And he even signed a NATO communique that condemned the annexation of Crimea - something that he had left up in the air. So this was not a replay of the G-7 meeting where he left with a lot of broken crockery and bad feelings.

KING: Let's hear what the president had to say about NATO allies agreeing, he says, to up the amount of their GDP, the amount that they spend on defense.


TRUMP: The commitment was at 2 percent. Ultimately, that'll be going up quite a bit higher than that.

KING: OK. So we do not know that for a fact at this point. But I want to ask you - were you surprised by the president's tone in this press conference? It went from feeling or seeming like a meeting where a president who was very confrontational to a president who then comes out and says, no, everything's great.

LIASSON: I was very surprised. And the big question is, what happened over the last couple of hours? Maybe he had no real negotiating strategy. He threatened and bluffed and blustered. He got himself into a corner. He kind of called his own bluff and then capitulated because that was the only way he could come out and declare the meeting a success and that he got the credit for NATO spending more money, even though they had already agreed to do that even before he was elected.

KING: Yeah, quite a quite a lot of questions still there.

LIASSON: But I can - this is certainly better than him leaving NATO saying, I'm going to pull troops out of Europe, which is one of the things that he threatened before. And to me, what was an interesting moment in the press conference was, you know, you have to wonder - what's the bottom line here? He comes out still committed to NATO. But with a big cost, he looks unpredictable. And unpredictability is something you'd supposedly save for your enemies, not your allies. And does it mean that his threats will be taken seriously in the future? We don't know. But at one point he was asked, is this an effective way to deal with your allies? And he said, yes, I think it's very effective.


Let me bring in another voice here. It's Fabrice Pothier. He served as NATO's director of policy planning. He's been in a lot of NATO meetings like this and has been following what we heard from President Trump today. Thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

FABRICE POTHIER: Good morning.

GREENE: So if you are another NATO leader - if you're Emmanuel Macron from France or Angela Merkel - and you're watching this press conference, the president of the United States sounding very upbeat, declaring victory, saying that NATO is stronger than it was just a day or two ago because of what he did in terms of these meetings, how are you reacting to that?

POTHIER: Well, I would think that he's just hosting the Trump summit when the real summit, the official one, is taking place outside the press conference room. And I think that's what your correspondent just said very well - that, you know, it's very much about showmanship and driving home the message that he's defending what he considers the U.S. interest and the unfair treatment of the U.S. So this is mostly about domestic politics and U.S. midterm elections. And it seems actually that there was indeed an emergency session. But there was no hard commitment or hard agreement. We will have to see if there is something. But it seems that, for his part, President Macron just said that there was no new commitment, and we're sticking to 2 percent.

GREENE: That's very important to point out here - I mean, that President Trump, I mean, seemed to say that 2 percent - and we should say this is 2 percent of GDP being spent on the military, which is the demand that has been made of NATO countries. The president said, we're at 2 percent. And then we're going to start talking about 4 percent. But the French president is basically saying that the president was not accurately depicting what happened in these meetings, that those commitments were never made.

POTHIER: Well, they might be both right.


POTHIER: You know, the French president might be right in a formal way because I don't think there's any new pledge coming out of that emergency session. There's still the 2014 pledge of 2 percent. But there might have been a kind of informal agreement that we should accelerate the pace of 2 percent. And then we should have a discussion about what's next in terms of new target.

GREENE: Oh, so...

POTHIER: So that could be, you know, what's in the air. But the question is going to be whether there's going to be a real, new policy return here after the summit or whether it was just to satisfy Trump showmanship.

GREENE: Well, the question of showmanship aside, if President Trump came and is saying that NATO countries should commit more to military spending and there are other NATO countries who have agreed at least, you know, in theory to maybe talking about 4 percent at some point is - take the showmanship sort of question out of it. Was this a success, in many ways, that the countries - the United States and all the other NATO countries - coming together and making this commitment to a bigger military commitment in years out?

POTHIER: I don't think there's a bigger commitment than what was already planned before the summit. So I think we should not overstate. The fact that he's put 4 percent on the agenda is obviously - any member state can do that, especially the U.S. But that doesn't mean the other allies agreed with it. I think what, probably, the atmosphere is more - let him have his way, at least in terms of rhetoric, so that he can drive home his message and get on with it and get on with the concrete work and the real commitments.

GREENE: Let me just ask you, looking forward - President Trump is going to be in Helsinki meeting with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, in a few days.


GREENE: And the president was asked at this press conference, might he consider at least hearing Putin out on a possible demand that the United States stop military exercises with the Baltic countries. That would be a huge deal, would it not? I mean, these are NATO countries right on Russia's border that rely on support from the United States to defend them against, you know, a possible hypothetical attack from Russia. That has to be something that NATO's going to be watching very closely.

POTHIER: Yes, I think this would be a real point of contention between the U.S. and the European allies - and not just the Eastern allies but the whole of the alliance because there is a heart commitment to maintain the pace of exercise and training. There's a big exercise planned for the fall of this year. So this would be seen as really touching on a red line. And the question is whether he's laid the ground for that while doing this discussion with the heads of states or whether he's going to, again, take them by surprise. But that would be a major concession. And if you read the communique that the U.S. has agreed - and the 28 other allies also - it doesn't say anything about reducing the pace of exercise. And the communique is actually pretty robust. And it says more or less business as usual since 2014.

GREENE: OK. Fabrice Pothier served as NATO's director of policy planning - joining us this morning. We really appreciate the time. Thank you so much.

POTHIER: Thank you so much. Bye.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson, I want to go back to you for a quick second because I am very interested in this question of whether or not this summit could be viewed as a Trump success. What do you think?

LIASSON: I think it could be viewed as a Trump success and a NATO success - Trump success in terms of the reality TV showmanship aspect. He goes over there. He says, I demand this. And guess what? They capitulated to my demands. They're spending more because of me. He says, I take full credit for this. So from his metrics, dominating the narrative, dominating the media coverage, setting up suspense and a cliffhanger and then winning in the end - that's a success for him. That's his metric. From NATO's point of view, he did not say that he was withdrawing troops from Europe. He signed a communique, which, among other things, says, we strongly condemn Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, which we will not recognize. So substantively, success for NATO; rhetorically, success for Trump.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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