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In remarks Thursday to kick off NATO's almost-complete, new headquarters, President Donald Trump recognized the importance of the alliance's collective defense clause to the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks. But he did not commit the United States to supporting it.
Instead, Trump used a highly anticipated moment to shame 23 other world leaders for not spending sufficient funds on defense efforts.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greeted Trump when he arrived and walked him into the new headquarters, which will be fully operational by the end of the year. Minutes later, the president was due to stand directly next to Stoltenberg in the front row of the “family photo,” the group picture of heads of states, on the grounds of the new headquarters.
“Today, we will commit to do more in our common struggle against terrorism,” Stoltenberg said in his opening remarks, a nod to Trump's urging of the alliance to turn to extremist threats. It was all part of an obvious effort to impress the president and create a sense of unity. Instead, it seemed to backfire.
After Stoltenberg introduced German Chancellor Angela Merkel to dedicate a memorial to the Berlin Wall, he invited President Trump to dedicate a 9/11 memorial recognizing NATO for invoking its collective defense clause, Article V, for the first time.
Trump seized the moment to return to his campaign rhetoric about refashioning NATO.
“The recent attack on Manchester in the United Kingdom demonstrates the depths of the evil we face with terrorism,” he said. “The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO's eastern and southern borders.”
The mention of Russia stood out in a speech that mostly stoked fear about increasing terrorist threats and called for more action.
Trump pressed his audience to unite in finding, exposing and removing extremist killers, calling them “losers” as he had in Israel.
“Wherever they exist in our societies, we must drive them out and never, ever let them back in,” he said, crediting Saudi Arabian King Salman for indicating to him in a weekend meeting that he joins the United States in that goal.
“It has given me renewed hope that nations of many faiths can unite to defeat terrorism,” Trump said, adding that it must be stopped, “or the horror you saw in Manchester and so many other places will continue forever.”
Complaining that thousands of people are pouring into each of the 28 NATO member countries and that they don't know who they are, Trump called on his counterparts to toughen up.
“I've been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenberg,” he said. “NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations.”
Three years ago, NATO member countries met at a summit in Wales to work toward spending 2 percent of their country's GDP on defense measures. But as Trump noted in his remarks, 23 of the 28 are not doing so. He called that unfair to American taxpayers and opined that even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient, given existing terrorist threats.
The message seemed incongruous with an off-script remark Trump made as he wound down his speech.
“I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” he said. “I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.”
Standing off to the side of Trump's podium, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel stifled laughter, and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel raised his eyebrows and turned his head to the side. Several other heads of state clustered around them cringed.
In his own speech to mark the handover of the new headquarters from Belgium to NATO, Michel said, “Our common values are not obsolete,” a not-so-subtle shot at Trump's campaign commentary knocking NATO.
Each of the verbal knocks were made in the first hour of the mini-summit before the heads of state and NATO officials sat down to dinner.