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At NATO, Trump lashes out at allies, then asks them to double their defense spending goals

President Trump, front right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, stand for a photo during the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
President Trump, front right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, stand for a photo during the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

BRUSSELS - President Donald Trump on Wednesday issued an ambitious call for vastly more defense spending at NATO, pushing for a doubling of their defense spending commitments hours after he delivered a blistering tirade against Germany and other allies.

The demand during a closed-door meeting of NATO leaders would radically increase the amount of money channeled toward military purposes in the Western alliance - and even the United States is currently falling well short of Trump's new goal.

Although Trump joined fellow NATO leaders in approving a sweeping set of plans to bolster defenses against Russia and terrorism, the U.S. president has complained that Europe has been taking advantage of U.S. military support for the continent. He urged his counterparts to substantially raise targets that they are already missing.

The move would raise billions more for defense. But not even the United States - which spends more money on defense than any other nation in the world - meets Trump's new goal of annual spending of 4 percent of nations' gross domestic product. Washington spent 3.6 percent last year.

"During the president's remarks today at the NATO summit he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4 percent. The president raised this same issue when he was at NATO last year," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

"President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations," she said.

Asked at a news conference about Trump's demands on defense spending, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested that the focus should be on getting every member country to reach the current goal of 2 percent. Only eight of 29 NATO countries are on track to meet the 2 percent goal this year.

Despite Trump's pugnacious posture and rhetoric, allies sought to project unity at the conclusion of meetings in Brussels.

"We do have disagreements, but most importantly, we have decisions that are pushing this alliance forward and making us stronger," Stoltenberg said. "At the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together."

Trump raised the spending issue during his remarks in the first and main session of the NATO summit.

The decision to sign on to the NATO defense plans plans suggested that Trump is holding back from slashing support for the alliance, despite his anger over what he says is Europe's taking advantage of the U.S. security umbrella. NATO leaders are still concerned that he will make concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet on Monday in Helsinki.

As the day began, Trump wasted no time going on the offensive as he began a week of high-stakes diplomacy on both sides of the former Cold War divide.

The series of meetings - beginning with NATO and capped by a summit with Putin - has been largely framed around Trump's claims that Washington bears an unfair burden to help protect its allies.

"Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia because it's getting so much of its energy from Russia," Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a fiery on-camera exchange that was among the harshest in the history of the post-World War II alliance.

"We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that's being paid to the country we're supposed to be protecting you against," Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.

Trump has complained bitterly about Europe's lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations were taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they were offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.

A favorite target of his ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and is beginning construction on a second natural gas pipeline to Russia. Germany and other European NATO partners argue, however, that they have boosted contributions to the military alliance and plan to kick in even more in coming years. Germany's leadership has said the pipeline is a private business decision and they have been reluctant to interfere.

The accusation of Russian influence may have been particularly biting to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist-controlled East Germany.

"I myself experienced that a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union, and I am very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany," Merkel told reporters as she entered NATO. "We decide our own policies and make our own decisions."

In remarks inside the closed-door meeting, she went even further in her tough pushback against Trump, according to two officials who were present and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private remarks. In firm, unemotional language, Merkel told the other 28 leaders how Putin once served as a KGB officer and spy in her own country, making clear that she had little tolerance for being told her nation was controlled by the Kremlin.

The U.S. leader traveled to Europe saying that a Monday summit with Putin will be the easiest of his week of diplomacy - an unusual assertion that upended NATO leaders' belief that the alliance should project a strong and united front against a strategic rival.

Trump has preferred to take aim at allies.

Even Stoltenberg - a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with Trump - appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War. Earlier in the exchange, Trump demanded credit from Stoltenberg for forcing an increase of NATO defense budgets.

"It was also because of your leadership," Stoltenberg told Trump. Budget increases started after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and they have accelerated in the Trump era in response to the U.S. president's criticism.

"We're supposed to protect Germany but they're getting their energy from Russia," Trump told Stoltenberg, as aides on both the U.S. and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats and sat stonefaced. Chief of Staff John Kelly jerked his head away as U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison looked up at the ceiling. "So explain that," Trump said. "And it can't be explained, and you know that."

Trump's criticism set off immediate anxiety in Germany. Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung headlined its story: "It is not only bad, it is catastrophic."

Germany's energy relationship with Russia has long frustrated Washington and Eastern Europe, who fear that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that bypasses the Baltic nations and Poland could be used to cut them off from crucial energy supplies. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a top executive at the Russian-government-controlled company that runs the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Trump has promoted exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe as an alternative to Russia as a supply source, although U.S. gas is far more costly because of the expense of shipping it.

Trump's laser-focus on Germany has unsettled Berlin, which had grown accustomed to a strong relationship with President Barack Obama. Trump plans to meet one-on-one with Merkel on Wednesday afternoon, when he will reiterate the same tough message to her face, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Journalists were allowed briefly into the room at the end of their meeting, but both leaders avoided publicly blasting each other face-to-face.

Trump is in Brussels for two days of NATO meetings. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, then spend the weekend at one of his private golf clubs in Scotland. Finally, he will head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin.

NATO members have agreed to a long list of efforts they believe will strengthen the alliance against Russia and other rivals, making it easier to speed military forces across Europe and toughen its counterterrorism initiatives.

Leaders plan to unveil two new military headquarters, one that would help secure the Atlantic Ocean in times of conflict and the other to speed military movement across Europe. They will bolster NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are expected to reconfirm their tough line on Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and their vow to continue to press the Kremlin to return it to Ukraine through sanctions and diplomacy.

Those are all conventional products of a summit such as this one - but Trump has thrown them into question.

Some diplomats worry that he might withhold his signature from the agreement that has already been approved by national security adviser John Bolton, repeating a move Trump made last month at the Group of Seven summit in Canada.

That would send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether NATO's most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked.

French President Emmanuel Macron believes that a weaker NATO could raise global tensions and could be costlier in the long run, an official in his office said, briefing reporters on condition that the official not be named or directly quoted.

NATO leaders also fear what concessions Trump could make to Putin.

Trump has raised the possibility of pulling U.S. troops from Germany. At the G-7 summit, he told leaders that he believed Crimea belonged with Russia because most of its residents are Russian-speaking, another position that would upend much of the West's security decisions against Russia since 2014.

Trump's performance on Wednesday drew fire from congressional Democratic leaders back in Washington.

Trump's "behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a joint statement.

After meeting with Trump, Stoltenberg tried to paper over the differences, saying that the bottom line is that NATO is getting stronger.

"President Trump has plain speaking, sometimes very direct pointing at specific allies, but when it comes to the whole message we all agree that NATO has to share the burden in a fair way," Stoltenberg said during a conference at NATO headquarters that is running alongside the summit.

"My main task is to keep all of our allies together," Stoltenberg added.

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