Trump barrels into NATO summit, clashes with France's Macron
LONDON -- LONDON -- U.S. President Donald Trump barrelled into a NATO leaders' meeting on Tuesday aiming insults at French President Emmanuel Macron, slamming '"unpatriotic" Democrats at home for holding an impeachment hearing while he is abroad and playing down the impact his domestic troubles are having on his standing on the global stage.
Trump began his first of two days at the NATO conference by harshly rebuking Macron, once arguably his closest European ally among foreign leaders, for recently saying NATO was experiencing "brain death" as a result of diminished U.S. leadership in the alliance under Trump.
Before meeting with Macron on the sidelines of the meeting, Trump laced into the French president for what he said were "very, very nasty" comments.
"I think that's insulting to a lot of different forces," Trump said. "You just can't go around making statements like that about NATO. It's very disrespectful."
Hours after the broadside, Macron and Trump sat side by side for a one-on-one meeting. Macron said he stood by his comments about the health of the NATO alliance. He also firmly expressed his frustration that Trump withdrew hundreds of American troops from Syria in October.
The decision by Trump, made without consulting NATO allies, gave Turkey, another NATO member, a green light to launch operations against Syrian Kurdish forces who played a key role in the fight to clear a huge swath of Syria of the Islamic State.
Trump and Macron have had an up-and-down relationship in the nearly three years Trump's been in office.
Macron, who early in Trump's presidency had looked to cultivate a close relationship with Trump, hosted Trump in France in 2017 for Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. Trump reciprocated by honouring Macron last year with the first state visit of a foreign leader during his time in the White House.
But the relationship has been put under new stress in the aftermath of Trump pulling out U.S. troops from Syria without co-ordinating with France and other NATO allies.
As they answered questions from reporters, the chasm between Trump and Macron was most apparent as they discussed their concerns over Turkey's plan to purchase an anti-aircraft system from Russia.
Macron said there is a disconnect in allowing Turkey to buy an anti-aircraft S-400 missile system from Russia and also be a NATO member. Trump said he is weighing issuing sanctions against Ankara if they move forward with plans to buy the weapons.
Ahead of the meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would oppose a NATO plan to defend the Baltic region if the alliance does not back Turkey over its fight against Kurdish groups it considers terrorists.
"I'm sorry to say we don't have the same definition of terrorism around the table," Macron said in a swipe at Turkey.
Trump showed a measure of deference to Erdogan, noting that Turkey was "very helpful" during an October U.S. special commando raid that lead to the death IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi near Syria-Turkey border.
"We flew over areas that was totally controlled by Turkey and Turkish military," Trump said. "They were very supportive actually. We didn't tell them what we were doing or where we were going. Turkey could not have been nicer, could not have been more supportive."
Trump criticized Democrats at the outset Tuesday, calling the impeachment push by his political rivals "unpatriotic" and "a bad thing for our country."
Trump, who initially commented while meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, is upset that Democrats scheduled an impeachment hearing while he is abroad.
The House Judiciary Committee has set a hearing on the constitutional grounds for Trump's possible impeachment on Wednesday just before the NATO summit concludes.
"I think it's very unpatriotic of the Democrats to put on a performance," Trump said. "I think it's a bad thing for our country."
Trump insists he's solely focused on scoring domestic and foreign policy wins, including making NATO members spend more on defence. But he's often appeared consumed by the day-to-day battle against impeachment.
"I'm not even thinking about it," Trump insisted anew Tuesday.
Before the trip to London, Trump slammed "Do Nothing Democrats" for scheduling the hearing during the NATO meeting as "Not nice!"
He also said that, during the flight, he had read a newly issued Republican-prepared report on impeachment that called his decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine "entirely prudent."
Democrats contend Trump abused his presidential powers by holding up the aid to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son, who had a seat on the board of Ukrainian energy company.
But Trump was adamant that the cloud of impeachment wasn't undercutting his negotiating position on the international stage.
"I know most of the leaders," Trump said. "I get along with them. It's a hoax. The impeachment is a hoax. It's turned out to be a hoax. It's done for purely political gain. They're going to see whether or not they can do something in 2020 because otherwise they're going to lose."
But even as he boasted of his relationships with NATO leaders, Trump rebuked Macron for recent comments that NATO was experiencing "brain death." Macron argues that the U.S. under Trump's leadership has turned away from the alliance.
"Nobody needs NATO more than France," said Trump, who himself in the past has questioned the long-term prospects of NATO, arguing that too few member nations are on track to meet the alliance goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on their own defence by 2024. "You can't just go around making statements like that about NATO. It's very disrespectful," Trump said.
Trump also lashed out at France for a French digital service tax that he said unfairly discriminates against U.S. tech companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. There is no direct effect on the United States from the French tax, which only applies to the tech companies' revenues in France, not the United States.
Robert Lighthizer, the chief U.S. trade representative, on Monday recommended $2.4 billion in new tariffs on French cheese, wine, and other products to retaliate for the digital tax.
Heather Conley, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the trip offered Trump an opportunity to highlight to voters back home that he's making progress on a foreign policy issue. The president views it "as his own personal foreign-policy success" that NATO members have increased defence spending by $130 billion since 2016.
However, in 2014 -- before Trump was elected -- NATO members agreed to move "toward" spending 2% of their gross domestic product on their own defence by 2024. Stoltenberg said in late June that the majority of NATO allies have plans to reach that goal.