In his first trip abroad as the leader of the United States, President Donald Trump had multiple opportunities to illustrate his support of the U.S.’s allies and to show his willingness to stand up to Russia.
Yet each time, he took the opposite approach.
At one point, his top adviser Gary Cohn suggested to reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump might be open to lifting NATO sanctions on Russia. The sanctions were imposed after Russia annexed Ukrainian territory, an action that also prompted the G7 leaders to kick Russia out of the group.
“The discussion on sanctions and Russia came up at NATO tonight. It was a pretty broad discussion with a lot of NATO talking about Russian Sanctions,” Cohn said, per press pool reports. Asked about the U.S. position on Russian sanctions, he added, “I think the president is looking at it.”
Top Trump adviser Gary Cohn after POTUS comments on Article 5 declined to say Russia sanctions stay in place: POTUS "is looking at it." pic.twitter.com/pIL45BpCiz
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) May 25, 2017
Cohn refused to either confirm or deny that Trump was considering lifting Russian sanctions, leaving the door open. Trump has floated the possibility of lifting the sanctions before, though his stance remains ambiguous: another senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Trump was “leaning” toward keeping the sanctions in place.
In the midst of questions over ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives — and over Trump’s own leaking of classified intelligence to the Russians — anything less than a strong endorsement of the sanctions sends a troubling message to America’s NATO allies, already stung over Trump’s admonishments.
In a speech before the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and other NATO states, Trump scolded the nations about “chronic underpayments” and their failure to “meet their financial obligations.”
Trump’s line about NATO allies’ “underpayment” is an old one of his, though NATO experts and former U.S. officials working with NATO have repeatedly pointed out that Trump’s rhetoric typically betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how NATO operates.
“The President keeps saying that we need to be paid by the Europeans for the fact that we have troops in Europe or provide defense there. But that’s not how it works,” former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told the Washington Post in March.
It’s true that many member states spend less militarily than the United States, but they also have, by agreement, until 2024 to ramp up military spending until it reaches the target of 2 percent of GDP. Many members, like Germany, have also agitated for spending on peacekeeping missions to be included in their contributions.
President Trump uses NATO speech to call for "members to contribute their fair share" & make up for many years lost https://t.co/oZPM4T4bT4
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) May 25, 2017
Trump also neglected to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty— which guarantees that member countries come to each others’ defense in the event of an attack. During his campaign, Trump openly questioned whether the United States would abide by this article of the treaty, despite the fact that it has only been invoked once: in defense of the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Reportedly, Trump was supposed to reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to this core principle of the NATO alliance in his speech, making his failure all the more noteworthy.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer, excusing the president’s omission afterwards, suggested that because “the entire ceremony was called an Article 5 dedication” it was “silly” and “laughable” to expect Trump to also verbally commit to the obligation. Every other U.S. since Truman has pledged to support Article 5.
Trump’s comments to NATO leaders came at a moment when the United States is itself under scrutiny for betraying the allegiance: Trump recently shared classified information about ISIS with Russian diplomats, and was publicly reprimanded by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May over intelligence leaks to the press about the Monday attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
And, as Trump continues to waffle regarding Russian sanctions, his own administration is under increasing scrutiny over possible ties to Russian intelligence operatives and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election.