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President Trump Renews NATO Criticism At Alliance's Summit


President Trump didn't pull any punches in Brussels this morning. The president is there for a NATO summit. And he was at breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and others when he very strongly and very publicly criticized the alliance.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, we're protecting Germany. We're protecting France. We're protecting everybody. And yet, we're paying a lot of money to protect. Now, this has been going on for decades.

KING: The cornerstone of NATO, of course, is collective defense. But President Trump has been open about his belief that NATO countries need to pay more and the U.S. should pay less into the alliance. Mark Simakovsky is with us in studio. He's former NATO chief of staff at the Department of Defense.

Good morning.

MARK SIMAKOVSKY: Thanks for having me.

KING: So you're familiar with these NATO summits. The president was very bluntly critical of NATO this morning, though maybe we've come to expect that. Do you think his brand of directness is going to pay off in any way?

SIMAKOVSKY: You know, in one way, the president has increased, in a way because of his rhetoric, alliance spending. Over the last two years, both because of U.S. pressure but also because the external threats that NATO faces from Russia and counterterrorism, allies have increased their defense spending. You have 8 of 29 allies who have met the 2 percent threshold agreed at Wales, about 8 of 29 who are on track to do so. So in many ways, before the summit, the president could've chosen to take a victory lap, take credit for some of those improvements. And again, these are improvements that are political commitments, and they're supposed to be done by 2024. But obviously, I think the president has taken the opposite tract of loading more pressure on. And I actually do think it could be counterproductive.

KING: Let me ask you, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is with President Trump at the summit. He was at the breakfast this morning. These two guys are very different. How do you think Mattis views NATO?

SIMAKOVSKY: I think Mattis actually is committed to the alliance. And despite frustrations with allied defense spending, Mattis has been able to toe the line of telling allies publicly and quietly - privately - that they need to do more but the United States will stick with them to the end because the United States, no matter what allies are spending, are - is an integral component of the alliance. And he understands how important alliances are. And when you talk to him, many Europeans have said it's like talking to any normal American official in a Republican administration. But when you see Trump's tweets, it's exactly the opposite.

KING: Is there anything that Mattis can do or will do, do you think, to reassure NATO leaders after this morning? Like, can he have sideline meetings with people without the president?

SIMAKOVSKY: Absolutely. The secretary of defense will be having both pull-asides as well as interactions at working dinners, where that will be his primary job, is to clean up the mess from President Trump. He's going to be reassuring allies, showcasing to them the important things that we're doing. But more importantly, Secretary Mattis told his team ahead of this summit, at the defense ministerial which happened about a month prior, we need concrete deliverables to support U.S. engagement in NATO.

And I think one of the silver linings of this summit is actually you will see some very strong measures on deterrence, on reforming NATO's command structure, on actually putting more U.S. commitment to NATO with the NATO Readiness Initiative, of showcasing U.S. support for NATO. So in many ways, this is a two-tiered approach to the NATO alliance, one that's being led by Secretary of Defense Mattis and one that obviously, publicly, is being led by the president's rhetoric or frustration with the alliance.

KING: Well, after the president leaves the NATO summit, he is going to go and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia, of course, is the most obvious aggressor to the European continent. What message is this meeting sending to U.S. allies?

SIMAKOVSKY: I think it's sending a very counterproductive message. You know, it's very important that the U.S. has a channel open to the Russians and that there's a summit with Russia. But this is the wrong time to do it. Again, there was rumors that this could've happened before the NATO summit. This is what President Trump wanted. Many of his advisers counseled against doing this because it's not the right time and not the right preparation.

I think President Trump wanted to send the signal that not only will there be a contentious summit but he's going to have a more positive summit with the Russian president, which, again, sends a signal of, the U.S. president is much more comfortable dealing with adversaries than with our closest allies. And again, that's, I think, a very disturbing image. And that could risk splitting the alliance, particularly if there are any Russian surprises in Helsinki.

KING: You think it could risk splitting the NATO alliance?

SIMAKOVSKY: I think, on Russia policy, the president is fundamentally different from where NATO allies are. And despite his criticism of Germany of being captured by Russia, there's real questions about President Trump's relationship with Russia. And I don't think he necessarily is on the same page with allies. And that is hugely disturbing, as allies are trying at this very summit to come up with measures to deter Russia and increase their capabilities to support collective defense against a rising continental power of Russia.

KING: Well, you mention this criticism of Germany. President Trump came out today and said, you know, Germany is actually the one that is sort of cozying up to Russia. They struck this energy deal that he finds very controversial - not just him, others as well. Do you think he's trying to take some of the heat off of himself, the president, for his relationship with Russia?

SIMAKOVSKY: Absolutely. I think the president, from the beginning, has said it's good to have a relationship with Russia, that we have mutual interests. Germany actually has been the bedrock of transatlantic sanctions policy. Merkel has stood up to Russia. She has been a critical component of the negotiations to try to get a resolution over the conflict in Ukraine. So blaming the Germans for being captive of Russia, I think, is both unfair and actually is contradictory based on where the U.S. president has said his view is of Russia. Germany has to have a relationship with Russia economically, but they've been willing to suffer economically with their leadership on sanctions.

KING: Just briefly, what happens if the NATO alliance does split? Where do we go from there?

SIMAKOVSKY: I think the NATO alliance is integral to U.S. security and U.S. interests. I think, again, this summit will not result in a split or a destruction of the alliance. But there will be real questions of its ability to move forward if the U.S. and U.S. response in a crisis is in question. And so I think, again, other leaders in the alliance and other people in the Trump administration are going to be the ones who are going to reassure that the U.S. remains committed to the alliance.

KING: They need to step up. Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council - he's former NATO chief of staff for the Department of Defense. Thanks.

SIMAKOVSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.