At his first meeting of the summit, with the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, Trump described the relationship between Germany and Russia as “inappropriate”.
Nato officials had been nervously awaiting the first meeting as an indicator of how Trump – who arrived in Brussels on Tuesday night – would behave over the next two days. Within minutes they had their answer.
This summit is shaping up to be the most divisive in Nato’s 69-year history. Normally, Nato summits are mostly fixed in advance and proceed in an orderly fashion. Trump’s first words signalled this one was not going to be like that.
He complained that German politicians had been working for Russian energy companies after leaving politics and said this too was inappropriate. Germany was totally controlled by Russia, Trump said.
With Stoltenberg looking on uncomfortably throughout, the US president was unrelenting. “I think it is very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia,” Trump said. “We are supposed to be guarding against Russia, and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions dollars a year to Russia.
“We are protecting Germany, we are protecting France, we are protecting all of these countries and then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they are paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia. I think that is very inappropriate.”
He added: “It should never have been allowed to happen. Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they will be getting 60-70% of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline.
“You tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not. On top of that Germany is just paying just a little bit over 1% [of GDP on Nato defence contributions] whereas the United States is paying 4.2% of a much larger GDP. So I think that’s inappropriate also.”
His comments were linked to his push for other European countries – particularly Germany – to pay more for Nato’s defence needs.
“I think it is unfair,” Trump said. Other US presidents had raised European defence spending levels in the past but he was intent on dealing with it. “We can’t put up with it,” he said.
Germany’s plan to increase its defence expenditure to the Nato target of 2% of GDP by 2030 was not good enough, Trump said. “They could do it tomorrow,” he added.
Stoltenberg seemed surprised by the force of Trump’s remarks. He attempted to respond, saying mildly: “Even during the cold war, Nato allies were trading with Russia.”
Asked about Trump afterwards, he responded diplomatically, restricting himself to saying the US president’s language had been “direct” and “frank”.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will get a chance to respond when she and Trump have a one-to-one meeting scheduled for later on Wednesday. There had already been expectations it would be a testy encounter, and this appears even more likely after Trump’s opening remarks.
According to reports in the US media, Trump is keen to see Merkel replaced as chancellor. His outburst could be part of a strategy to try to undermine her at a time when she is domestically vulnerable.
Merkel has been one of the most outspoken critics of Trump among European leaders. The two clashed at the G7 summit in Canada last month. That summit ended in disarray in a spat between Trump and Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. Nato officials are clinging to hopes that this summit will not end the same way.
Trump’s criticism of a Germany deal with Russia on energy appeared to relate to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline direct to Germany.
Just before he and Stoltenberg sat down to breakfast, Trump claimed the US was paying a disproportionate share of European defence and this was unfair to the US taxpayer.
Europe would have to step up, he said. “They will spend more. I have great confidence they’ll be spending more.”
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