WASHINGTON — Days after a report alleged the U.S. president has repeatedly floated the idea of pulling the country out of NATO, he offered a mixed message in a Pentagon speech.
“We will be with NATO 100 percent, but as I told the countries, you have to step up,” President Donald Trump said Thursday at the Pentagon.
Speaking at the rollout of his administration’s Missile Defense Review, Trump’s remarks follow a report in The New York Times that he spoke about pulling out of the 70-year-old alliance. Trump reportedly told aides around the time of the last NATO summit in Brussels last July that he wanted to withdraw.
Trump has called NATO both “obsolete” and “no longer obsolete,” but Thursday’s remarks were all the more striking for their setting — in the Pentagon amphitheater — and the timing. Last month, one of NATO’s strongest supporters in the administration, Jim Mattis, resigned as defense secretary, citing in his resignation letter views on alliances that differ from Trump’s.
Hours after Trump’s speech, he denied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an aircraft for a planned trip abroad. The two politicians have been clashing over the four-week government shutdown. Pelosi, D-Calif., was to lead a congressional delegation for Afghanistan and Brussels, where — according to a spokesman — she was set to meet with NATO commanders and reaffirm America’s commitment to the alliance.
Even as Trump voiced support for NATO at the Pentagon, he repeatedly commented on America’s allies, calling them “wealthy, wealthy” countries, who could easily be paying the U.S. directly for its “protection” of them, and should be, he said.
“So you'll see big changes taking place, and we've had great talks with countries, friendly talks,” he said.
Speaking to the uniformed and civilian audience, Trump added: “We cannot be the fools for others. We don’t want to be called that. And I will tell you, for many years behind your backs, that’s what they were saying.”
Trump flouted his unpopularity in Europe and took credit for pressuring NATO countries to increase their defense budgets. He also said the Missile Defense Review directs the Pentagon to prioritize the sale of American missile defense and technology to allies and partners.
“We want them to be able to defend, and they are willing to pay for the finest missiles in the world,” he said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reiterated support for NATO after The New York Times report.
A bipartisan bill to explicitly prohibit any U.S. president from withdrawing from NATO without Senate approval was introduced Thursday by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Wednesday that a U.S. withdrawal from NATO would be a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“That’s Putin’s dream,” Schumer said. “All the advice of our military and diplomatic leaders were against it. Somehow the president wants to do it. And who benefits the most? Putin. Who loses the most? The West.”
Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner, a former chairman of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, saw Trump’s remarks as “a very good answer” to The New York Times article.
“I was very glad the president said he was 100 percent committed to NATO; that was important following the unnamed-sources New York Times article,” Turner said Thursday after returning from the Pentagon event. “It was essential he did not back off his commitment to increase the funding spent by our NATO allies — something every president has targeted.”
Turner lauded Trump for fully funding the European Reassurance Initiative and massive military exercises while calling for an increase in the U.S. defense budget — all while France and Germany have discussed a European military force apart from NATO.
“I think the mixed signals are coming from our allies,” Turner said. “They ought to undertake an American reassurance initiative.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.