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Trump Goes ‘America First’ Ugly at NATO Summit

He may have been surrounded by America’s closest allies. But President Trump used the opportunity to talk to his base.

Like a dad scolding a kid who has skipped his chores, President Donald Trump put NATO members on notice, bawling out the almost two dozen members who haven’t spent enough on defense.

It was one of many ways in which Trump’s debut at the world’s most important military alliance was more like a campaign speech than a diplomatic address.

“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Trump said on Thursday to the assembled leaders, in his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” he said, adding that the U.S. had spent more on defense over the last eight years than all other NATO countries combined.

It was a jarring lecture as NATO allies stood shoulder to shoulder after unveiling a plaque memorializing how they all responded to America’s request for help after al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington.

Trump followed the dressing down with a slightly snarky aside saying, “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” referring to the gleaming new billion-dollar NATO headquarters he just helped open and hinting it probably cost too much. It was a rare flash of campaign trail Trump in the carefully choreographed official remarks during his whistle-stop overseas tour that has hopscotched from Saudi Arabia to Israel to Rome to Belgium and goes on to Sicily.

The trip, arranged by his son-in-law and one of his closest White House advisers, Jared Kushner, sketched out the foreign policy goals of his presidency: defeating the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda; bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians; and shoring up foreign alliances so the U.S. doesn’t have to bear what the Trump administration considers an unfair burden of blood and treasure to police world instability.

For his base, calling on NATO members to pay up is a key tenet of his “America First” policy. Only four other NATO members, Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland, invest two percent of their gross domestic product in defense and the rest have pledged to meet the requirement by 2024. But that’s not fast enough for the Trump administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the members two months ago that they should present a plan to meet that goal at this meeting.

They didn’t, but NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said they would eventually. “We decided to develop annual national plans, setting out how allies intend to meet the defense investment pledge we made together in 2014,” he said. The State Department declined to comment on the 23 nations’ failure to deliver.

Trump telegraphed disdain for at least some members of NATO when he visibly shoved Prime Minister Duško Markovic of Montenegro out of the way to get closer to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a video clip sure to become a meme of the ugliest expression of America First.

“I am somewhat perplexed when you’re at a ceremony that is centered around Article 5,” which he said shows U.S. commitment just by taking part. He called the criticism that the president didn’t verbally affirm that commitment “almost laughable.”

Trump did mention NATO’s Article 5 in his remarks, which requires all allies to respond to any member under attack, by recognizing the first and only time it was triggered was by the U.S., asking for help after 9/11.

Some members had hoped Trump would go further and repudiate his campaign trail remarks in which he warned broadly that he might not come to the aid of countries who hadn't met their two percent investment target—a hope Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer derided in remarks to reporters after the event.

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“I am somewhat perplexed when you’re at a ceremony that is centered around Article 5,” which he said shows U.S. commitment just by taking part. He called the criticism that the president didn’t verbally affirm that commitment “almost laughable.”

Instead, Trump used his reference to Article 5, combined with the suicide bomb attack in northern England on Monday, to pivot to his belief that NATO should turn its sights on militants as one of its primary missions.

“The recent attack on Manchester demonstrates the depths of the evil we face with terrorism,” he said, referring to the suicide bombing that killed 22 people including children as they were leaving an Ariana Grande concert. “It was a barbaric and vicious attack on our civilization.”

Trump has previously claimed credit for NATO counterterror programs that started before his campaign or presidency. After this visit, however, he’ll be able to claim credit for pushing a proposal the NATO leaders approved Thursday to join the 69-member ISIS coalition. That gives Trump a deliverable for his base—albeit, somewhat limited, in that most NATO members are already part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

NATO chief Stoltenberg gave Trump one more deliverable Thursday, announcing the establishment of a “terrorism intelligence cell within our new intelligence division,” to improve information sharing on the foreign fighter threat.

Trump revisited his speech Sunday to Arab and Muslim leaders, calling on NATO members to help eject “these killers and extremists and yes, losers, they are losers."

Once again, there was no use of his one-time catchphrase on the subject, “radical Islamic terrorism,” that apparently having been erased by the studious efforts of his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who finds the phrase causes more harm than good, alienating the large majority of Muslims who the U.S. needs to cooperate to battle extremism.

So instead of slamming “radical Islamic” ideology in the NATO address, he said of the Saudi summit, “Leaders agreed to stop funding the radical ideology that leads to this horrible terrorism all over the globe.”

Trump sprinkled the speech with incomplete phrases he’d used on the campaign, like signposts for his base that show he’s still aiming at resolving the same issues though using more tempered language.

“You have thousands and thousands of people pouring into our various countries and spreading throughout, and in many cases, we have no idea who they are,” he said, when calling on NATO to do more on immigration to fight terrorism. That line was a clear if unintended homage to his campaign trail press release “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.”

In another appeal to Trump voters who fear an influx of Mideast terrorists via refugee flows or Latin American fence-jumpers who would steal American jobs and commit crimes against its people, he deployed lines like this: “We must drive them out and never ever let them back in.”

The White House pool reporter (Philip Rucker of The Washington Post) wrote that at times during the ceremony, "Trump crossed his arms and fidgeted slightly, looking around at the scene before him or staring down at his feet." When the meeting adjourned, and some of the other leaders stopped to mingle, Trump talked to no one and walked out alone.

This story was updated to correct the name of the Prime Minister of Montenegro.