The FINANCIAL -- U.S. President Donald Trump has set a confrontational tone at the start of NATO's two-day summit in Brussels, criticizing Germany for making natural-gas pipeline deals worth "billions of dollars" with Russia while expecting the United States to "protect them against Russia."
Speaking during an breakfast gathering with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that opened the alliance's meeting on July 11, Trump said: "We're protecting Germany. We're protecting France. We're protecting everybody." He added that "it's very unfair to our country. It's very unfair to our taxpayers."
Trump said Germany was "totally controlled by Russia" because of its dependence on natural gas and its Nord Stream gas-pipeline deal with Moscow, according to RFE/RL.
The summit is shaping up to be one of the most difficult alliance gatherings in years as Trump continues to pressure NATO allies to increase their military spending.
Trump has repeatedly criticized alliance members for their levels of defense spending ahead of the meeting.
In a series of tweets and comments to reporters as he departed Washington, D.C., on July 10, Trump suggested NATO's other 28 members should "reimburse" the United States for its spending on the alliance.
He also repeated misleading statements about which countries were meeting the alliance's Defense Investment Pledge, where each member by 2024 is expected to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and about when those falling short of the requirement were expected to meet that goal.
"Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made," he said in a post to Twitter. "Will they reimburse the U.S.?"
Trump told reporters in Washington on July 10 the United States had "a lot of allies. But we cannot be taken advantage of. We're being taken advantage of by the European Union." U.S. spending on NATO "helps them more than it helps us."
A defense spending level of at least 2 percent of GDP has long been a guideline for each NATO member state, until it was set in 2014 under President Barack Obama as a formal commitment.
NATO headquarters said the alliance is on track to increase its overall defense spending by 3.8 percent in 2018, and a total of eight members are expected to reach the 2 percent guideline by the end of the year, according to RFE/RL.
Trump's criticism has elicited pushback from NATO and European leaders in the past, and European Council President Donald Tusk chided him on July 10.
Trump's criticism of the alliance has stood in stark contrast with his warm words for NATO's main adversary, Russia.
Trump is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, following the conclusion of the NATO meeting and a trip to Britain.
Asked by a reporter whether Putin was a "a friend or foe," Trump responded: "I really can't say right now.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's a competitor," he said. "I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, is a good thing."
Of his meetings in Brussels and Britain and with Putin, he said: "Frankly, [the meeting with] Putin may be the easiest of them all -- who would think? Who would think?"
Among the responses that Trump and White House officials have suggested if NATO members don't increase spending is to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe.
Some alliance members have privately voiced concern that Trump might also pull out of a major upcoming military exercises, including one, Trident Juncture, scheduled for October. Another set for November, called Anakonda, will be testing the alliance response in defending NATO member Poland.
In a call with reporters on July 10, the U.S. ambassador to NATO tried to allay concerns among allies the United States was backing away from NATO, or from the alliance treaty's Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.
Trump "is committed to Article 5 protection just as it is in the NATO charter," Kay Bailey Hutchinson said. "He is committed to it. And I think that any indication that we're walking away from the NATO charter and the commitments that we've made would be erroneous.
"We are committed to Article 5. We are committed to the NATO alliance. We believe that the NATO alliance strengthens America because we speak with 29 voices to a Russia that is one, to an Iran that is one, to a North Korea that is one. We are 29 and that strengthens us all," she said.
In the U.S. Congress, support for NATO remains strong among both Republicans and Democrats, according to RFE/RL.
As Trump arrived in Brussels, the U.S. Senate passed by a 97-2 margin a motion to "reaffirm the ironclad U.S. commitment under Article 5 to the collective defense of the alliance."
Mitch McConnell, who holds wide influence as the Republican leader of the Senate, was asked on July 10 about Trump's threats to the alliance.
"I'm not worried about Trump pulling out of NATO," he told reporters.