President Donald Trump’s European summer swing will be bookended by summits that form a microcosm of his contrarian presidency. Some worry his coming talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin could alter the post-World War II global order.
Trump’s seven-day trip will start with NATO allies he believes are making “schmucks” of Americans and will end with Putin, whom Trump believes is “fine” despite agreement among his intelligence agencies that Russia tried to upend U.S. politics with a disinformation campaign in 2016. Democratic lawmakers are warning that Trump’s unique foreign policy philosophy — a mix of pre-World War I realism and modern-day mercantilism — could lead him to further anger allies and give in to a Russian strongman.
The president and his top aides have given few signs that he intends to moderate his tough love rhetoric and demands for America’s NATO allies or that he plans to deliver ultimatums to the Russian president about meddling in future American elections or giving up the Crimea region of Ukraine he seized in 2014.
During the NATO summit in Brussels this week, Trump aides say he will look the leaders of America’s allies in their eyes and deliver anew his demand that they devote more to the alliance’s coffers because the United States is sick and tired of footing the bill for their security.
“I want to emphasize that the 2 percent [of GDP contribution] that everyone pledged to make the effort to attain is not just a number that was pulled out of the air,” U.S. NATO envoy Kay Bailey Hutchison said Thursday.
“We all have to remember that we are now facing major threats by Russia,” the former Texas Republican senator told reporters. “Most certainly, we have a rising China. … And all of these things require that we have an overall capability that can only be achieved if all of us collectively put in at least 2 percent [of individual GDP] in the purchase of capabilities — it’s airplanes, it’s tanks, it’s submarines, it’s technology.”
Hutchison made a point to emphasize her view that one of the themes of the gathering of alliance leaders is “going to be NATO’s strength and unity.” But if one listens just to her boss, it is not a stretch to wonder just how unified such an international body can be if its most influential and wealthy member appears skeptical of its necessity and the manner in which it is funded.
“Germany, which is the biggest country of the … European Union, Germany pays 1 percent,” Trump said Thursday. “And I said, ‘You know, [Chancellor] Angela [Merkel], I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you, and it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.’”
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Contrarian in chief
Trump then criticized the EU for recently striking a deal with Russia’s energy-exporting monopoly Gazprom that will tighten Moscow’s grip on Europe as its leading fuel supplier, which it has been for decades.
“So they want to protect against Russia, yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia,” Trump said. “And we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing.”
Trump’s contrarian in chief approach is also evident when comparing his rhetoric on Putin and Russian activities to those of members of his own administration.
“I might even end up having a good relationship [with Putin]. But they’re going ‘Well, President Trump, be prepared, President Putin is KGB,’” Trump said Thursday at a campaign rally in Montana.
“Do you know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people,” he added. “Will I be prepared? Totally prepared — I have been preparing for this stuff my whole life. They don’t say that.”
Trump has said he intends to discuss Crimea, election meddling and other contentious issues when he meets with Putin in Helsinki. But he also raised eyebrows about his mindset for the one-on-one summit, which will not feature any aides, when he tweeted this last month: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!”
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
When briefing reporters Thursday, Hutchison said the NATO leaders will discuss how to deter what she described as “the malign activities of Russia, the efforts of Russia to divide our democratic nation.”
Jon Huntsman Jr., Trump’s ambassador to Moscow, hinted that the U.S. president takes a tougher line on Putin in private, telling reporters, “The president will continue to hold Russia accountable for its malign activities.” To that end, the administration has slapped stiff sanctions on some Russian individuals with ties to Putin and Russian entities, including two of its top intelligence agencies
Huntsman assured reporters that Trump “knows the facts and the details and he’s discussed it.” Still, the ambassador signaled there are differences within the administration about how to handle Putin: “We all talk about it a little differently, but the president has talked about it in his own way.”
Democrats in distress
Concerned Democratic lawmakers are likely to howl as Trump barnstorms Europe while criticizing America’s oldest allies and sounding a lighter tone on Putin in pursuit of his campaign promise to warm U.S.-Russia relations. In fact, they’re howling already.
“It is entirely possible for a U.S.-Russia summit to be constructive, but I’m very concerned that after his recent performance at the G-7 in Canada, President Trump will once again clash with our closest allies at the upcoming NATO summit, only to then engage in fawning photo ops with President Putin afterwards,” Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons of Delaware said on June 27. “I’m very concerned President Trump can’t help but try to please another autocrat at the expense of our democracy.”
House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith said Wednesday it appeared “the president is trying to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards Russia and away from our democratic allies in Europe.
“I believe the president is lining us up with an authoritarian dictator, instead of with democracies that promote economic and political freedom,” the Washington Democrat told CNN. “I don’t think that’s what the United States should stand for. And I don’t think it’s in our long-term best interests in terms of our policy.”
But as Democratic members raise concerns, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies advises they look “beyond tweets to the actual text of the new U.S. [National Security] Strategy,” which states that “the U.S. remains fully committed to the transatlantic alliance and Europe’s defense.”
“The new strategy may call for more European military efforts,” the former adviser to Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and Pentagon leaders said. “But it strongly backs the NATO alliance and singles Russia out, along with China, as one of the two major challenges to U.S. security.”
The president is not known for studying wonky strategy documents. When compared to his public remarks and tweets, his administration’s National Security Strategy merely shows how Trump often does his own thing while his aides attempt to portray some ounce of normalcy and continuity in America’s foreign policy.
Ultimately, Trump’s the boss. Which means his words and deeds during his European swing will drive policy — especially since aides have acknowledged Trump has few goals for the two summits. They’ll have to, as always, hastily craft policies for whatever the boss might agree to — or reject — in Europe.