BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump affirmed his support for NATO Thursday, abruptly shifting his tone after a tense start to a North Atlantic summit in which he lashed out at allies and accused them of not paying enough for their defense.
Trump said he told European allies in private meetings that he was "extremely unhappy" with their contributions to the alliance, and claimed to have received commitments to increase defense spending. He repeatedly declined to detail those commitments.
"So now we're very happy and have a very powerful, very, very strong NATO. More powerful than it was two days ago," he told reporters in Brussels Thursday.
But as Trump departed Brussels for the United Kingdom a number of European leaders tamped down the idea they had committed to additional spending. French President Emmanuel Macron pointed to previous commitments NATO members had made to increase defense spending by 2024.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters he had made no decision to increase defense spending.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed at Stansted Airport, 40 miles northeast of the British capital Thursday afternoon local time. Trump will meet with Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II before heading to Scotland on the four-day visit.
Trump's about-face on NATO comes just days before he's scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki to discuss a range of issues critically important to the United States and its European allies: Its incursions into Ukraine, its attempts to interfere in Western elections, and its violations of arms control treaties.
With the first day of the NATO summit threatening to expose deep divisions in the alliance, Trump used the second day to send a more unifying message.
The White House called the press conference with nine minutes notice, a signal of just how close the summit had come to falling apart amid reports – from several European news organizations citing diplomatic sources – that Trump had threatened to leave the alliance.
Trump asserted he has the authority to pull out of the treaty unilaterally, but that the additional commitments he's received at the two-day summit made that "unnecessary."
The statement appeared designed to head off growing panic among the 28 other allies over Trump's ever-more-insistent demands that they spend more on defense.
Repeatedly pressed by reporters about whether he had threatened to pull out of NATO, . Trump declined to answer the question directly.
"Yes, it was a little tough for a little while," he acknowledged.
“I told people that I would be very unhappy if they didn’t up their commitments very substantially,” Trump said. “Today and yesterday I was probably a little bit more firm.”
On Wednesday, he publicly shamed Germany for approving a pipeline to bring Russian natural gas through the Baltic Sea. Then, in a closed-door session with allies, he suggested that even spending the agreed-upon 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense wasn't enough. He wanted 4 percent.
But his criticism softened during the 35-minute press conference Thursday. At one point he described NATO as a “fine-tuned machine” and “much stronger than it was” and he said that the U.S. commitment to the organization “remains very strong.”
And he insisted that NATO was as united as ever, despite the very public rift. “To see the level of spirit in that room is incredible,” Trump said.
NATO allies have also been unsettled by Trump's overtures to Putin.The president said on Thursday that he views Putin not as a friend or an enemy but as a "competitor" and repeated his desire for better relations with the Kremlin.
But he also remained noncommittal on whether the United States might recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, which the United States views as illegal.
"So that was on Barack Obama's watch. That was not on Trump's watch," he said. "What will happen with Crimea from this point on, I can't tell you."
Trump's last-minute Brussels press conference avoided a repeat of the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month, which blew up after Trump refused to sign on to a joint declaration and left the summit early to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would not be pushed around by the United States on trade, Trump responded with a tweet from Air Force One calling Trudeau "very dishonest and weak."
Asked by a Croatian reporter whether he would change his tone on NATO upon leaving Brussels, Trump said his message was consistent.
"I'm a very stable genius," he said.
Earlier Thursday, he repeated his complaint that the U.S. carries a trade deficit with the European Union even as those countries rely on the United States to pay for their defense.
"Presidents have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Germany and other rich NATO Nations to pay more toward their protection from Russia," he tweeted. "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!"
John Fritze reported from Washington.