White House officials reportedly weren’t sure if Trump was serious about ditching NATO

President Donald Trump attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium.

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President Donald Trump attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium.
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Reuters/Francois Lenoir

  • Senior White House officials have expressed a degree of alarm about President Donald Trump’s persistent ideas of a complete US withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • After Trump first made the suggestion of leaving the European alliance, senior officials said they did not know if he was being serious, according to a New York Times report published Monday.
  • Officials on both sides of the Atlantic know that NATO is the bedrock of an alliance that goes back decades and benefits both North America and Europe.
  • During a recent NATO summit, Trump got up to leave as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was delivering a speech, US and European officials reportedly said.
  • Trump interrupted Merkel’s speech by walking up behind her and telling her she was a great leader, the officials told The Times.

Senior White House officials are raising the alarm on President Donald Trump’s private discussions regarding the US’s complete withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a concept that would upend diplomatic norms and is staunchly opposed by current and former officials in the Trump administration.

After Trump first made the suggestion of leaving the European alliance, senior officials said they did not know if he was being serious, according to a New York Times report published Monday. But when Trump kept coming back to the idea, officials reportedly began worrying about the seriousness of his remarks.

NATO has been the bedrock of a military alliance binding North America and Europe against the threat of Soviet and then Russian incursions for well over half a century.

Cracks in the historic treaty would be music to the ears of Moscow.

Trump has repeatedly and publicly berated the alliance, accusing member countries of not contributing their fair share on defense costs while maintaining a trade surplus over the US. Amongst NATO allies, the US is way out in front on defense spending at $618 billion, or 3.57% of its gross domestic product, in 2017.

And while NATO members agreed to raise spending to at least 2% of GDP – a concept that previous US presidents advocated – several countries, including Germany, have indicated they can’t make the changes in time.

Read more: Here’s how Donald Trump took shots at NATO in 2018 – and it spurred Jim Mattis to quit in protest

After a difficult visit to France in November, Trump fumed on his return about what he characterized as the “ridiculously unfair” US-NATO status quo.

“Never easy bringing up the fact that the U.S. must be treated fairly, which it hasn’t, on both Military and Trade,” Trump said in a tweet. “We pay for LARGE portions of other countries military protection, hundreds of billions of dollars, for the great privilege of losing hundreds of billions of dollars with these same countries on trade.”

Trump’s attendance in NATO meetings also shed light on his disagreements with US officials, including national security adviser John Bolton and former defense secretary Jim Mattis. In July, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg surprisingly encouraged his colleagues to make increases to defense spending and gave glowing remarks about the US’s leadership.

Trump reportedly responded to the remarks by spinning his head around and glaring at US officials, one person familiar with the scene told The Times.

At the same summit, Trump reportedly got up to leave midway through a speech given by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US and European officials who witnessed the incident said. Trump then interrupted Merkel’s speech by walking up behind her and telling her she was a great leader.

NATO’s 70th anniversary meeting was initially planned for Washington, DC, in April, but it was later downgraded to a foreign ministers meeting because of doubts around Trump at the event, according to The Times. The event is now reportedly not expected to be held in DC.