Suddenly, all is deemed well
What exactly changed, if anything, remained to be discovered. But as the sun rose over Long Island on Thursday, President Donald Trump had abruptly abandoned his criticism of NATO and in remarks broadcast from Brussels claimed agreement on defense funding, then boasted that the alliance is "very strong, very unified, no problem."
Before that NATO had gone into emergency budget session where it looked like all was in crisis. "Everyone has agreed to substantially up their commitment. They're going to up it at levels that they never thought of before," Trump said. "I told people that I'd be very unhappy if they didn't up their financial commitments substantially."
No one can say what "they never thought of before." But defense spending was always supposed to rise by agreement to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Trump now says that will be accelerated. Confirmation and details are still pending. "I think NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago," the president asserted.
The needler of the Free World
At first, Trump's words at the NATO summit shocked. But on reflection, at the end of the day, they were not entirely surprising variations of his greatest hits.
Faced with suspicion over his fondness for Russia's Vladimir Putin, Trump trotted out the "No puppet — you're the puppet" routine he used on Hillary Clinton. This time, the target was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with Trump claiming that Germany “is totally controlled by” and “captive to Russia.”
Trump complained anew that many of the NATO allies are "delinquent" in sharing burdens by failing to meet his demand to devote 2% of their gross domestic product to military spending. Then he told them (as he did last year) that the figure should be 4%— more than what the United States spends. That had echoes of Trump declaring the wall he hasn't built and Mexico isn't paying for will be 10 feet higher.
Merkel wasn't in the room for Trump's tirade against Germany, which came at a breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Observers noted that U.S. officials on Trump's side of the table, especially chief of staff John Kelly, looked uncomfortable during his remarks. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave this explanation to The Washington Post:
"[Kelly] was displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese." And a steaming side of Trump bile.
Yet the private meetings between Trump and his counterparts went more smoothly and agreeably, with Trump and the allies in accord on spending and priorities for defense and counterterrorism.
“Everything in the room was fine,” Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania, told the Post. Outside the room, she said, Trump was less productive with his “outspoken rhetoric.”
Can't take him anywhere
Democrats called Trump's performance on the Brussels stage horrifying.
“President Trump’s brazen insults and denigration of one of America’s most steadfast allies, Germany, is an embarrassment," said a joint statement from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "His behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies."
Republicans, for the most part, were pained but restrained.
"I subscribe to the view that we should not be criticizing our president while he is overseas," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, "but let me say a couple of things — NATO is indispensable; it's as important today as it ever has been." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said of Trump, "I think sometimes he can be a little too critical of our counterparts."
But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Trump got it right. "I think it’s about time that somebody in the U.S. stood up to NATO. Also, the Europeans can be sort of arrogant at times, so it's good to knock them back."
It wasn't all gas lighting
The launching point for Trump's rip on Germany was Berlin's pursuit of a plan to build an 800-mile-long pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea to import gas from Russia. That's not a fake issue.
The United States and Eastern European nations fear that by creating an alternative to existing land pipelines, it will make it easier for Russia to exploit dependency on its energy supply for political pressure. Moscow could cut off countries such as Poland and Ukraine while still selling energy to other customers.
The pipeline would also be a setback for U.S. energy suppliers who want to boost access to Europe.
Can't get enough satisfaction
Trump wasn't going to bed happy, if his tweet sent shortly after 1:30 a.m. Thursday Brussels time is an indication:
"Billions of additional dollars are being spent by NATO countries since my visit last year, at my request, but it isn’t nearly enough. U.S. spends too much. Europe’s borders are BAD! Pipeline dollars to Russia are not acceptable!"
Janison: To forgive and get even
Trump's pardons of two Oregon ranchers whose imprisonment inflamed anti-government groups fit into an emerging pattern with some of his acts of clemency, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Besides making shows of mercy, he gets it to stick it to present and past adversaries.
The 5-year sentences of Dwight and Steven Hammond for setting fires on government land, deemed excessive by Trump, had been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as "not grossly disproportionate to the offense." The circuit's judges have thwarted Trump in rulings on his travel ban, DACA and sanctuary-city cases.
Last month, Trump pardoned political provocateur Dinesh D'Souza, who pleaded guilty to making an illegal GOP campaign contribution. D'Souza's prosecution was overseen by former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, now an outspoken Trump critic. Another Trump pardon went to former Bush administration official Scooter Libby, who lied to investigators over a national-security leak. Who prosecuted Libby? None other than James Comey, who later became FBI director and Trump's nemesis over the Russia investigation.
How North Korea talks spuddered
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to Pyongyang last week went as badly as it could have gone, a source with knowledge of the discussions told CNN. "The North Koreans were just messing around, not serious about moving forward," the source said, adding that Pompeo had been promised a meeting with Kim Jong Un, but didn't get one.
Where was Kim? Reports from North Korea's official news agency hinted he was busy visiting a potato farm, according to CBS News. Pompeo had to settle for a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, the top Kim's powerful right-hand man, who told a visiting South Korean official last week that the leader was away for a trip to a "local region."
In Brussels Wednesday, Pompeo took the long view. "Look, this is a decades-long challenge, getting the North Koreans to make a fundamental strategic decision, which is that the nuclear weapons they possess today, frankly, present a threat to them and not security," he said.
What else is happening:
- On a campaign tour of the Midwest, Vice President Mike Pence is trying to calm big donors' concerns about the trade war's worsening impact on markets, farmers and employers across the region, Politico reported. A pair of tweets from Trump asked farmers to be patient: “I will open things up, better than ever before, but it can’t go too quickly.”
- In a bipartisan show of frustration with Trump's conduct of trade battles, the Senate voted 88 to 11 on a nonbinding resolution calling for Congress to get more say about tariffs imposed in the name of national security.
- Pastor Paula White, a spiritual adviser to Trump, told The Christian Post that some critics of Trump's immigration policy who point out "Jesus was a refugee" are misreading the Bible. Said White: "Yes, He did live in Egypt for 3-1/2 years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law, then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah."
- A study by two Federal Reserve Bank economists predicts the tax cuts Trump and Republicans enacted in late 2017 will likely provide less of a boost to economic growth than many forecasters projected — and possibly none at all — because the economy was already firing on all cylinders, The Wall Street Journal reports.
- Lawyers for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman going on trial in two weeks, complained about his treatment in a Virginia jail two hours from Washington. Then they objected when the judge ordered him moved closer. Prosecutors say Manafort has been heard on monitored calls saying he gets treated like a "VIP" in a larger-than-standard private unit with its own bathroom and shower, personal phone and a laptop.
- A Russian asbestos company is marketing its wares with Trump’s image, The Washington Post reports. Why? Because Trump has long expressed skepticism about its potential health dangers after it is applied.