LONDON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday insisted he didn’t want to disrupt Britain’s upcoming elections.
So instead, he disrupted everything else.
During his first NATO meeting on Tuesday morning, Trump deepened a widening rift between him and the French president, defended NATO in perhaps his strongest terms as president, proclaimed his “confidence” in North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and toyed with waiting until after the 2020 election to strike a trade deal with China.
It was a startling cascade of news, even by Trumpian standards, that gushed out during a 52-minute question-and-answer session with reporters. It ensured the American president would yet again take center stage among world leaders, who had gathered for two days to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary. And it also put Trump, ever the contrarian, in the unusual position of defending NATO.
The most immediate fallout from Trump’s remarks will likely come when the president meets with French President Emmanuel Macron later on Tuesday. During his morning Q&A, Trump took aim at the French leader for his recent description of NATO as experiencing “brain death.”
“It’s a tough statement when you make a statement like that. It’s a very, very nasty statement to essentially 28 countries,” Trump said, before launching into a broader attack on Macron and France, while standing up for NATO.
“France is not doing well economically at all. They’re starting to tax other people’s products,” Trump added. “They’ve had a very rough year and you just can’t go around making statements like that about NATO. It’s very disrespectful.”
It was an odd look for the president. During his 2016 campaign, Trump harped on the idea that the U.S. was being treated unfairly by other NATO alliance countries that didn’t nearly spend as much, proportionally, on their own militaries as the U.S. But as other allies up their spending, Trump has become a greater fan of the longtime alliance — especially as his sometimes rival, Macron, has voiced criticism of it.
Trump’s initial comments at NATO strayed from just the state of European affairs into North Korea’s recent missile tests, the China trade deal and impeachment.
He delved into his relationship with the North Korean dictator, resurrecting his “Rocket Man” nickname, but insisting the two men were close — a fact that Trump said gives him hope about a deal on nuclear weapons, despite the country’s recent missile tests.
“We’ll see what happens. It may work out. It may not, but in the meantime, it’s been a long time. President [Barack] Obama said it’s the No. 1 problem and it would’ve been war. You’d be in a war right now if it weren’t for me,” Trump said.
“We have peace,” he added. “And at least speaking for myself, I have a very good personal relationship and he has with me. I’m possibly the only one he has that kind of relationship with in the world. They call it the hermit kingdom. I know a lot about his hermit kingdom. But I have a very good relationship. If you would’ve listened to President Obama, we’ll be in World War III right now.”
On the fate of a China trade deal, Trump said he felt no pressure to come to any agreement, even previewing that he might delay a deal until after the 2020 election.
“In some ways, I like the idea of waiting until after the election for the China deal,” he said.
And on impeachment, Trump continued to call the congressional probe a “hoax” and a “scam,” as House Democrats move toward a vote on whether to impeach Trump in the coming weeks.
When asked if the impeachment process weakened his position at NATO, Trump insisted it did not, even though his administration has been pummeling Democrats for holding an impeachment hearing while Trump is overseas. Trump argued that he already knew the world leaders in attendance.
“It’s done for purely political gain,” Trump told reporters. “They’re going to see whether or not they can do something in 2020, because otherwise they’re going to lose.”
Later in the day on Tuesday, Trump is slated to meet with Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, before attending an event at Buckingham Palace.
He is also expected to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his time in England, where Trump remains deeply unpopular. Both Trump and White House aides have vowed not to interfere in the country’s Dec. 12 elections, which could determine how, when, or even if Britain leaves the European Union.
Trump’s careful treatment of Johnson stood in sharp contrast on Tuesday to his public feuding and sharp words with Macron. British officials had been preparing for Trump to drop an unpredictable bomb into the race.
“I don’t want to complicate it,” Trump said about staying out of the U.K. elections. “Look, I’ve won a lot of elections for a lot of people. If you look just over the last few months, two elections in North Carolina I won. I helped the governor of Kentucky. You know that I was a fan of Brexit. I called it the day before.”
But he did throw in a small compliment for Johnson: “I think Boris is very capable and I think he’ll do a good job.”
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