As a NATO summit he threw into chaos wrapped up Thursday, President Donald Trump cheekily declared himself a “very stable genius.”
The other world leaders present mostly begged to differ.
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Trump’s wildly unpredictable performance over two days in Brussels left many European leaders convinced that there is little method to the American president’s rhetorical madness, and simply no way to anticipate what he might do next.
“Nobody knows when Trump is doing international diplomacy and when he is doing election campaigning in Montana,” Danish defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said. “It is difficult to decode what policy the American president is promoting. There is a complete unpredictability in this, and one of the things you need in this alliance is predictability towards Russia.”
Frederiksen said NATO allies now “live with the uncertainty” that Trump “plays in a completely different way than the rest of us.”
Trump upended the summit even before it started by unleashing a tirade against Germany during a breakfast meeting on Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and created further upheaval by hijacking a meeting Thursday morning about Ukraine and Georgia during which he again demanded that allies quickly increase their national military spending and threatened that if they failed to do so, the U.S. could break with the alliance and start conducting security policy unilaterally, by going its “own way.”
Reaction to Trump’s tirades against European allies — not just on military spending but also on trade and other issues — has focused mainly on the major powers of Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
But Trump’s behavior has been just as unnerving, if not more so, to smaller allies that have long counted on Washington and shown unwavering loyalty to the Western alliance.
In the NATO leaders’ meeting that focused on spending — what the alliance refers to as “burden sharing” — Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said he confronted Trump, noting that the Danish military had suffered casualties participating in the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan roughly in the same proportion as the U.S. military.
In an emotional presentation, Rasmussen told the president that he had attended the funerals and could not accept Trump telling him that Denmark was not doing enough for NATO. “In direct and clear speech, I have made it clear to him that Denmark’s contribution cannot be measured in money,” Rasmussen said.
“The U.S. president has come up with some pretty bombastic announcements and Twitter has moved into the conference room,” he said during a post-summit briefing.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, chimed in with his own concern: “It is a new reality, and you have to look past both spelling and factual mistakes and take Trump serious when he barrels forward with his Twitter.”
When a Croatian journalist confronted Trump about his inconsistencies, the president flatly denied there were any, and he repeated a defense of his own sanity that he had made when previously questioned about his fitness for the presidency.
“We understand your message, but some people ask themselves, will you be tweeting differently once you board the Air Force One?” the reporter said.
Trump, speaking at his news conference before leaving the summit, replied: “No, that’s other people that do that. I don’t. I’m very consistent. I’m a very stable genius.”
But leaders who spent the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency thinking there might be a method to his chaos creation — and struggling to discern what it might be — now seem to have concluded that it’s just chaos, and that Trump himself may not understand what he’s doing.
While Washington has long ago grown numb to Trump’s unrelenting mayhem, the president’s two days of undulations in Brussels, rolling between enraged criticism and boastful, happy proclamations, left many leaders feeling queasy.
It’s not just Trump’s casual disregard for longstanding protocol, like the way he showed up late to the summit on Thursday, before forcing the discussion back to the issue of spending, which had not been on the day’s agenda.
Trump also committed a cardinal sin of diplomacy by conflating issues that are typically kept in silos — like military spending and trade, or energy policy, in the case of the German gas pipeline project — to reduce the chance of rupturing negotiations.
Trump derided Germany at the breakfast Wednesday as “totally controlled by Russia” because of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, accusing Berlin of paying billions to Russia while essentially shirking its duties to NATO.
“You know, we’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France. We’re protecting everybody. And yet we’re paying a lot of money to protect,” Trump said, adding, “I have to bring it up, because I think it’s very unfair to our country.”
Then, at an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the summit that same afternoon, he said, “We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor. We have a tremendous relationship with Germany.”
A senior NATO official said leaders had concluded that they simply could not rely on anything Trump said.
“You know the way he speaks, you cannot take him literally,” the official said.
Another EU official echoed the point. “He speaks a language that doesn’t match with diplomacy,” the second official said. “We were used to the Brits, who speak a more frank diplomatic language, but this is another thing.”
Macron, at his own post-summit news conference, tried to spin the situation positively, saying he believed NATO had emerged stronger because in the end Trump had declared “strong commitment” to the alliance.
In a slight dig, Macron said he was not interested in declarations away from the leaders’ table. “One makes announcements on these subjects, I prefer a serious spirit,” Macron said. At another point, Macron complained: “Sometimes tweets are more important than what is negotiated.”
But for evidence that he is, in fact, a “genius,” Trump might point to the closing assessment of NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who suggested that Trump’s hectoring was having a positive impact on the alliance.
“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear. We understand that this American president is very serious about defense spending,” he said. “There is a new sense of urgency due to President Trump’s strong leadership on defense spending.”
In fact, this week’s summit yielded no new spending pledges from NATO nations — despite Trump’s boasts otherwise.
And Trump once again made European allies feel as though he sees them as adversaries rather than friends. He again said his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be the easiest part of his trip. And he jabbed at the U.K. over the Brexit chaos that has led to the recent resignations of Cabinet ministers just before he headed there for state visit.
“I said I’m going to a few hot spots,” Trump said during his news conference “We have NATO, then we have the U.K., and then we have Putin. And I said, Putin may be the easiest of them all. You never know. But I’m going to a pretty hot spot right now, right, with a lot of resignations.”
Kait Bolongaro and Philip Kaleta contributed to this report.