LONDON – President Donald Trump lashed out at French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday as the two leaders met for talks on the sidelines of NATO meetings taking place in Britain’s capital.
Quarrels over defense spending, fights about trade and climate policy, rifts over Turkey’s actions in Syria, and Iran – Trump is in London for a gathering connected to the military alliance’s 70th anniversary. The official program starts Wednesday.
But ahead of that, Trump said Tuesday recent comments from Macron that NATO is experiencing “brain death” were “very nasty” and “very insulting” to the alliance’s other 28 members. “Nobody needs NATO more than France,” he said.
“It’s a very dangerous statement for them to make,” Trump also said, as his NATO visit now risks being overshadowed by his meeting with Macron.
“Macron is seizing (the) moment, seeking to be disruptive in his own way, and so we will see how that works,” said Heather Conley, a foreign affairs expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Among Macron’s disruptions: continuing to argue for the relevance of the Iran nuclear deal that Trump has withdrawn from; announcing at the end of August that Europe needed to seek a greater accommodation with Russia and China; and his “brain death comments,” made in an interview in The Economist, and a reference, in part, to NATO member Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held Syria to root out fighters it considers terrorists, but who had also been successfully assisting U.S.-led forces battling the Islamic State group.
Macron has also long argued that Trump’s exit from the international climate accord was a mistake. And France’s president wants the military alliance, founded in 1949 to act as a bulwark against the then-Soviet Union, to pivot more toward fighting global terrorism.
For his part, Trump has repeatedly called the alliance “obsolete” and publicly attacked NATO members for failing to meet defense spending commitments, a scenario that has slowly started to be rectified as more NATO allies meet mandated 2%-of-GDP spending levels. At last year’s NATO summit, Trump arrived late and called Germany “delinquent” and a “captive” of Russia.
“A lot of countries haven’t paid,” Trump said Tuesday. “You could make the case that they have been delinquent for 25-30 years.”
In a further ratcheting up of tensions, as Trump arrived in London on Tuesday night, the White House said it was considering imposing tariffs on up to $2.4 billion worth of French goods in response to that country’s new digital services tax targeting U.S. technology companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google.
The tariffs would affect French cheese, wines and handbags.
“(Macron) wants a real strategy discussion” about NATO, said Thomas Gomart, director of IFRI, a Paris-based international relations think tank. “Not just to pretend that everything is OK.”
Still, after Trump and Macron met in person on Tuesday, the U.S. leader struck a conciliatory tone in front of media, although the chemistry between the two leaders appeared cooler than it has in past encounters.
“We have a minor dispute I think we will probably be able to work it out,” Trump said.
Macron said NATO needs to refocus itself on new threats, not just money.
Trump also raised the issue of foreign Islamic State fighters captured by U.S.-led forces in Syria. “They are all under lock and key but many are from France, many from Germany and from the UK. Mostly from Europe. And some of the countries are agreeing. I have not spoken to the president about that,” he said, turning to Macron.
“Would you like some nice ISiS fighters? I can give them to you,” Trump said.
Macron responded by saying that “for me the very first objective in the region is to finish work against (the Islamic State group),” a reference to Trump’s decision to order U.S. troops out of Syria amid Turkey’s incursion. But since Trump’s decision to withdraw in October, some U.S. troops remain in the country.
Trump has called the NATO meetings in London “one of the most important journeys that we make as president” and he kicked off a series of meetings Tuesday by holding closed-door talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
In earlier wide-ranging remarks to the press, including about Macron’s comments on NATO being “brain dead,” Trump said “NATO serves a great purpose.”
He also criticized France for the digital services tax, saying that “if anyone was going to tax American companies it will be me.”
Trump also addressed the prospect of signing a trade deal with China, saying he “likes the idea of waiting until after the (2020) election” for that agreement.
He described recent violent protests in Iran, in which rights group said more than 200 people were killed, as a “terrible thing.”
He confirmed that he will be meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson but said he had “no thoughts” about Britain’s impending general election on Dec. 12. The British press has speculated that a meeting with Trump, mired as he is in the impeachment inquiry back in Washington, may not be a good look for Johnson before the vote. “I don’t want to complicate it,” Trump said of Britain’s election.
Later, Trump will participate in a reception with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the military alliance.
On North Korea, where Trump is trying to get Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons program, Trump said that “if you would’ve listened to President Obama, we’ll be in World War III right now.” However, talks with North Korea have stalled.
Gulnur Aybet, a senior adviser to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said her government’s decision to invade northeastern Syria “was not a NATO issue.” Macron has expressed displeasure at Turkey’s failure to coordinate its Syria actions with NATO, an operation the rest of the alliance opposed.
While he won’t be in Washington for Wednesday’s impeachment hearing in which the House Judiciary Committee will unveil witnesses, the inquiry has followed Trump to London. That’s largely by his own design.
“Just landed in the United Kingdom, heading to London for NATO meetings tomorrow. Prior to landing I read the Republicans Report on the Impeachment Hoax. Great job! Radical Left has NO CASE. Read the Transcripts. Shouldn’t even be allowed. Can we go to Supreme Court to stop?” the U.S. president tweeted after arriving at Stansted Airport on the outskirts of London.
Sitting next to Stoltenberg on Tuesday, Trump said: “I did nothing wrong. You don’t censure somebody when they did nothing wrong.”
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