White House

A tale of two days — and tones — for Trump as he wraps wild NATO meeting

As president urges alliance to ‘get along with Russia,’ GOP chairman warns relations between two countries are at ‘low point’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, gestures to Turkey's President Recep Erdogan, right, while President Donald Trump looks on as NATO leaders leave the stage after having a group photo taken at the summit in London on Wednesday. (Peter Nicholls/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — President Donald Trump shifted from an aggressive and attacking offense on the first day of a NATO summit in London to a more defensive posture on its second and final day.

Trump resorted to name-calling Wednesday as he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renewed their on-again/off-again feud. The president called Trudeau “two-faced” after the Canadian prime minister was caught on a hot mic Tuesday evening mocking his American counterpart for delaying other leaders by holding lengthy question-and-answer sessions with reporters that altered the agenda.

That followed Trump’s nearly 40-minute public argument with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday about a range of issues as the two contradicted and interrupted one another in a wild scene broadcast live around the world.

As Trump took his shot at the Canadian leader Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee was about to kick off its first public impeachment hearing, during which several constitutional scholars testified his actions toward Ukraine’s president amount to impeachable offenses.

What’s more, the House Intelligence Committee released call logs showing his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had telephone conversations with White House officials after Trump placed him in charge of Ukraine matters. Two Ukrainians with whom Giuliani was working already have been indicted.

Though the president took a number of questions during two impromptu gaggles Wednesday, he abruptly canceled a news conference his staff had planned after his final event at the alliance meeting. 

Trump would not pin that decision on a reluctance to face questions about Giuliani, who has said his actions were solely taken on behalf of the client in chief. Instead, the president said the move to ax the more formal back-and-forth with reporters was made because of the amount of time he gave them earlier in the summit.

Either way, Trump was in no mood to discuss the former New York mayor Wednesday.

I really don’t know. You’ll have to ask him,” Trump replied when asked of Giuliani’s phone conversations with White House Office of Management and Budget officials. “It sounds like something that’s not so complicated. … No big deal.”

Perhaps sensing he would be forced to defend himself, Giuliani minutes earlier had tried doing just that with this tweet: “The mere fact I had numerous calls with the White House does not establish any specific topic. Remember, I’m the President’s attorney.”

As he left the British capital, Trump was jetting back to the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry following another performance on the world stage in which he clashed with allies and inched closer to countries like Turkey and Russia.

“I think we feel that we can get along with Russia. And I think it’s a good thing to get along with Russia,” Trump said, indicating he has a mandate to do just that: “And I campaigned on it. I mean, I’d go into big stadiums; people liked it. And I think the Russian people would like to see it too. A lot of ... good can come of it.”

Trump went so far as to suggest NATO — established in large part to guard European countries against aggression from the then-Soviet Union — should change its primary mission.

“You know, a lot of people say it was meant to look at, originally, the Soviet Union — now Russia,” he said. “But we also have other things to look at, whether it’s radical Islamic terrorism, whether it’s the tremendous growth of China. There are a lot of other things.”

As always, Trump did not describe who those “people” are. But they are not most of his fellow NATO leaders. Macron said while it is “important to have a strategic dialogue with Russia,” Western officials “must do so without naïveté.”

Back home, Republican Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch on Tuesday took a much different tack on Moscow than Trump.

“Vladimir Putin has taken Russia down another, much darker path. Today, many Russians suffer, while oligarchs enrich themselves through control of major industries,” the Idaho senator said before alleging the Kremlin “rigs its elections” and “inhumanely” detains and tortures its own citizens.”

“The U.S. relationship with Russia is at a low point,” Risch said during a panel hearing. “Our engagements with Russia are few, and there is a growing risk of a strategic miscalculation on the seas, the ground, or in the skies.”

While Risch credited U.S. allies for helping Washington be “pretty tough on the Putin regime,” the commander in chief spent two days in London calling out Canada, Germany and others for all kinds of, in his view, diplomatic and security sins. Chief among them: failing to live up to alliance members’ pledges to devote 2 percent of their national spending to defense programs. Trump suggested that is what prompted Trudeau to mock him in the hot mic moment.

‘Passing storm cloud’

Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the nonpartisan Defense Priorities think tank, called the Trump-Macron-Trudeau dustup a “passing storm cloud.”

Those differences — though uncharacteristically thrown into the public light — collectively “belies the real position that Macron is still more pro-NATO than Trump,” he said, noting Macron over the two days was “in his own way” defending the alliance against the Western notion that “Trump is this barbarian at the gates that wants to tear it down.”

Friedman suggested NATO’s “larger problems” lie with Turkey, including its actions in northern Syria and opposition to allowing the entire alliance to “sign off on plans to defend the Balkans.”

There, too, Trump was in the minority in London.

“I discussed everything with him,” Trump told reporters following a private meeting with Erdogan. He claimed safe zones Turkey and Russia established in northern Syria for Kurds — long a U.S. ally that lawmakers say Trump abandoned — and a ceasefire “are working.”

“They can patrol their own border,” Trump said of Turkish forces. “That’s a border that’s been under siege for many many decades. It was time for us to leave.”

Republicans and Democratic lawmakers, however, want to slap stiff sanctions on Ankara for its military mission into Syria, which killed many Kurds. The White House, so far, has fought those efforts.

Trump did get one foreign policy win, however.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the U.S.-Japan trade mini-deal to reduce tariffs on American agriculture goods and set digital commerce rules should take effect Jan. 1, after the Japanese Diet's upper house approved the agreement Wednesday. Approval by the U.S. Congress is not required.

Back in London, the NATO leaders’ summit ended with several Trump meetings closed to members of the traveling media. But there was one lighter moment when a reporter asked if Trump would discuss Greenland, which earlier this year he mulled trying to purchase from Denmark, during a private meeting with the Danish prime minister.

“Will we discuss Greenland? What do you think?” Trump quipped. “She must be in the real estate business.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.