BRUSSELS — President Trump upended the NATO summit here Thursday by calling an emergency meeting of leaders and threatening that if all member countries do not immediately increase their defense spending commitments, the United States would go it alone, according to diplomats with knowledge of the private discussions.
It was not clear whether Trump was threatening a U.S. withdrawal from NATO, but some diplomats perceived his comments that way.
Trump told NATO leaders that if they did not meet their defense spending targets of 2 percent of gross domestic product by January, the United States would go it alone, according to two officials briefed on the meeting. The officials said Trump threatened to “do his own thing.”
“I told people that I’d be very unhappy if they did not up their commitments very substantially,” Trump said after the meeting. “I believe in NATO.”
Asked at a news conference whether he could withdraw the United States from NATO without congressional approval, Trump replied, “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary.” He added: “The people have stepped up today” as they never have before. “Everyone in the room thanked me. There was a great collegial spirit in that room. . . . Very unified, very strong. No problem.”
“NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” Trump said. “We are doing numbers like they’ve never done before or ever seen before.”
Trump scolded leaders here and criticized some countries, including Germany and Spain, for failing to contribute more to their defenses and for relying too heavily on the largesse of the United States.
It was not immediately clear what specific new commitments had been made. Trump said Germany agreed to accelerate its defense spending increases. He pointed to what he said were $33 billion in NATO defense spending increases this year as evidence that his push was having an effect.
“They are spending at a much faster clip; they are going up to the 2 percent level,” Trump said. He said leaders committed to go to their parliaments to obtain the spending increases. He said the increase would happen in “a very short number of years.”
Trump’s demand jolted the transatlantic alliance at the conclusion of this week’s Brussels summit and, in the words of one diplomat briefed on the events, sent “everyone into a tailspin.” A morning of meetings to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Georgia and Ukraine was scrambled to address Trump’s spending concerns.
Trump last week told senior aides he was going to make threats about defense spending and that he was determined to flip the table over before he left, a senior administration official said ahead of Thursday’s drama, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive summit planning.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has railed against European allies for not paying more for the defenses and becoming too dependent on the United States. And he continued beating that drum in a pair of tweets he fired off Thursday morning from the Brussels residence where he stayed, before arriving at NATO headquarters for meetings.
“Presidents have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Germany and other rich NATO Nations to pay more toward their protection from Russia,” Trump wrote. “They pay only a fraction of their cost. The U.S. pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidize Europe, and loses Big on Trade!”
Trump wrote in a second tweet, continuing a line of attack he opened Wednesday against Germany over its reliance on a gas pipeline from Russia: “On top of it all, Germany just started paying Russia, the country they want protection from, Billions of Dollars for their Energy needs coming out of a new pipeline from Russia. Not acceptable! All NATO Nations must meet their 2% commitment, and that must ultimately go to 4%!”
At a closed-door session Wednesday with NATO leaders, Trump called on member nations to increase their defense spending targets from 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product to 4 percent — a figure higher than what even the United States channels toward its military.
“President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Trump began his trip here by scolding allies over breakfast Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“Many countries are not paying what they should,” Trump said, seated across from a visibly rattled Stoltenberg. “And, frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them.”
Despite the tensions, Trump and other leaders held a cordial dinner Wednesday night, at which he made no mention of the tension earlier in the day. He spent part of the time bragging about the press turnout at his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying it was better than the Oscars, according to an official with knowledge of the dinner who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
“He likes the ideas of their leaders being destabilized and therefore easier to manipulate for him,” said Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer. “He is trying to make everyone look weak and doesn’t understand how all the moving parts work. He sees it as a zero-sum game where the United States can call the shots.”
Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.