Trump's NATO comment made his own staff squirm

CNN's Tom Foreman takes a closer look at what body language says during face-to-face meetings with America's NATO allies.

Posted: Jul 13, 2018 3:41 PM
Updated: Jul 13, 2018 3:43 PM

Two Donald Trumps showed up at NATO.

One was gratingly aggressive, inaccurate and insulting -- and with November midterms looming, seemingly intended as an appeal to the President's political base.

The other, according to a head of state and several diplomats who spoke to CNN, was slightly more restrained behind closed doors, intent on getting alliance members to increase their defense budgets, an issue Trump has hammered at since his presidential campaign.

Even presented with a slightly more reasonable private Trump persona, NATO sources say the President's demeaning comments -- particularly about Germany -- left members of the alliance angry. And they remain anxious that Trump's blustering will create an unfavorable contrast between the summit in Brussels, Belgium, and the US President's upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

'A big show'

Trump's attacks seemed to be merely "a big show, that Trump wanted to do right away, when cameras were on. A show, upfront, for his audience back home," said one senior Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Even so, the two diplomats said that NATO allies going into the summit in Brussels feared Trump would be "all snarls" during his time at the NATO summit and would then be "all smiles" when he meets with Putin.

The White House has said that Trump, in his meeting with Putin, will raise the issues of Russia's election meddling and its destabilizing behavior in the Ukraine. But these diplomatic sources say there's now an expectation that Trump will be perfunctory about it, acting because of political pressure, and little development is expected on either topic.

And even as Trump deployed a more reasonable tone in private meetings, analysts and NATO experts worried about the damage his displays are doing to the alliance.

Barry Pavel, a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council, said the alliance "is built on trust and is built on values," The amount and level of emotion heard from foreign leaders in reaction to Trump "was not a good sign," he said.

Speaking of the President's behavior, Pavel said, "I worry that it is in some way tearing at the fabric ... of the transatlantic bonds."

Trump raged through the meeting publicly dismissing allies as "delinquent" in their defense spending, charging that Germany is "captive" to Russia and questioning the very point of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, widely seen as the world's most successful security alliance, with a tweet saying, in part, "what good is NATO?"

Behind closed doors, Trump was more measured and businesslike, though he still projected impatience and urgency, according to two senior Western diplomats who didn't want to be identified to discuss internal conversations.

These sources say Trump "pulled his punches" when he went into the plenary session with NATO leaders. Trump did mention his goal of NATO countries contributing more, but made no threats and was actually quite calm. The feeling among allies being "that could have been a lot worse."

And while they characterized Trump's bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "nice" and focused on "the great relationship" the US and Germany share, these sources said Merkel was "furious" after Trump had slammed Germany in his public comments earlier in the day, suggesting it was under Moscow's influence because it imports energy from Russia.

"Germany is not North Korea, so the same tactics the Trump administration used on North Korea should not be applied to the closest allies of the United States," Pavel said. "The US leads in the world by the power of attraction, not by the power of coercion."

A senior NATO official said the private discussions on burden sharing between Trump and the other leaders was "tough on both sides," as the alliance members rejected Trump's call for countries to spend 4% of GDP on defense spending, a significant jump from the current 2% guideline. The official referred to Trump's suggestion as a "throw away remark."

This official, as other leaders and sources have said, reiterated that NATO recommitted itself to the 2% goal laid out in 2014.

'Frustration'

Trump used "up front, blunt language" and projected "a sense of urgency" and "frustration," this official said. But the other leaders pushed back on Trump during the discussion in what was a "heated" and "unscripted" exchange.

This official said NATO leaders were encouraged by Trump's more supportive comments about the alliance at his news conference, where he said he believes in NATO. And the official noted that other NATO leaders are getting "used to this," when it comes to Trump's fiery rhetoric.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN that everyone agrees on the core issue of increasing defense spending and distinguished that issue from "messaging" about it.

"When it comes to the substance, we all agree that we have to do more," Stoltenberg said Wednesday. "And therefore, I try to distinguish what is different language and messaging and what is disagreement on the core task."

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