WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday embarked on a seven-day trip to meet with European leaders, kicking-off his journey by criticizing long standing allies in the region but predicting a smoother meeting with Russian president Vladmir Putin.
“So I have NATO, I have the U.K., which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?” Trump told reporters outside of the White House Tuesday morning as he ticked off his agenda for the trip.
Trump’s week in Europe starts Wednesday with a two-day meeting in Brussels with the multi-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He then makes a four-day visit to Great Britain and Scotland starting Thursday, followed by a one-on-one summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland Monday.
Asked if Putin, was a “friend or foe” to the U.S., Trump told reporters he regarded the Russian leader as “a competitor.”
“I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, getting along with others is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said
Trump’s arrival in Europe comes amid mounting tension with longtime allies stoked in part by the president’s move to impose tariffs on aluminum and steel imports that have resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products.
Also, in a string of recent remarks and tweets, Trump has derided the European Union as “worst than China” on trade with the United States.
At the NATO summit, Trump will face some of the same leaders he met with last month at the Group of 7 summit of allies in Canada -- where he arrived late and left the gathering a day early without signing a customary joint statement issued after each summit.
Trump also rankled allies at the meeting by calling for Russia’s reinstatement to the group, after it was suspended in 2014 for its role in annexing Crimea from the Ukraine.
In remarks to reporters and on Twitter, Trump on Tuesday previewed his European trip by repeating his criticism that many NATO members aren't meeting their financial obligations to the security alliance.
He also said he believes the believes the EU, “makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe.”
Trump’s remarks prompted Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, an EU offshoot, to issue a tweet directed at Trump arguing the U.S. “doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally" than the EU.
“We spend on defense much more than Russia and as much as China," Tusk wrote. "I hope you have no doubt this is an investment in our security, which cannot be said with confidence about Russian & Chinese spending.”
In England, Trump is expected to largely avoid London, where protestors have vowed to take to the streets. Instead, he will hold meetings with Prime Minister Theresa May at her country home, and visit Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.
Trump will arrive in England just days after the abrupt resignation of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and other British elected officials who were key supporters of the Brexit movement.
Johnson, a Trump supporter, stepped down over his opposition to May’s handling of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from European Union, criticizing her for the slow pace of withdrawal negotiations.
Asked if May should step down, Trump told reporters Tuesday: “That's certainly up to the people, not up to me.”
White House officials said that In Helsinki, Trump will have three sessions with Putin: A one-on-one meeting with only translators and note-takers in the room; a meeting with advisers from both countries; and a working lunch.
"What is important in all these cases is dialogue. And this can take many forms. But what is important here is that we start a discussion," said Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, in a phone briefing with reporters last week. "The president has determined that now is the time for direct communication between himself and President Putin, and that it is in the interest of the United States, in the interest of Russia, in the interest of peace and security around the world. And that's the way he's proceeding."