Donald Trump hosted a brief press conference alongside Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the White House yesterday, and they fielded a question about the American president having undermined NATO with his recent antics. Not surprisingly, Trump didn’t quite see it that way.
“I went to NATO, and NATO was essentially going out of business, because people weren’t paying and it was going down, down, down,” Trump said. “You just have to look at the line.”
The problem isn’t just that the American president lied about this; it’s also that his lies reflect ongoing confusion about an issue he really ought to understand by now. The New York Times explained in a new fact-check piece that Trump peddled “an outright falsehood” yesterday.
As The New York Times has previously explained, each NATO member pledged in 2014 to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024, largely because of Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.
As a share of their gross domestic products, spending by European members and Canada began to rise before Mr. Trump took office. The most recent report from the alliance shows that member states’ annual spending as a share of their gross domestic products has steadily increased since 2015, when it was 1.4 percent, to 1.47 percent in 2018. The total dollar amounts spent by European countries and Canada have also risen every year over that time period.
Though the vast majority of members have not yet reached the 2 percent goal, they do not “pay” this money to NATO, and the alliance is not “going out of business” for failing to collect payments.
As part of the same exchange, Trump added that NATO “couldn’t collect money” from member nations until he became president. But again, that’s not how NATO works – the alliance doesn’t “collect” defense investments from its members – and it was 2014, when Barack Obama was president, when defense spending among NATO members started to climb.
Trump acts as if he somehow recapitalized the military alliance through the awesomeness of his leadership, but that’s both wrong and nonsensical – which might be less annoying if his lies about the NATO alliance weren’t so frequent.
It was, after all, just last week that the Republican president spoke to steelworkers in Illinois, where he complained bitterly about the alliance at a speech that wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with foreign policy. Trump falsely claimed our NATO allies were “delinquent” – a line even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded was untrue – before badly misstating defense spending levels throughout the alliance, the trajectory of recent defense spending, and our own current levels of military investment.
As we discussed the other day, the American president appears to be an alarmingly slow learner. After admitting that he spoke about NATO as a candidate without knowing enough about it, the president has attended two NATO summits, met repeatedly with top officials from NATO countries, received countless foreign-policy briefings from White House officials, and Trump still seems to lack a rudimentary understanding of the basics of the world’s most successful security alliance.
There’s just no excuse for such ignorance.