You might remember two weeks ago when Angela Merkel and NATO leaders listened to President Donald Trump in polite but stony silence during his speech at the unveiling of the new NATO headquarters. The crowd looked visibly tense when Trump got to his remarks about Article 5, in which he didn’t definitively uphold a crucial part of the NATO alliance. But NATO leadership weren’t the only ones who were shocked. Trump’s own team was also taken aback, because that’s when Trump likely went rogue and didn’t read the speech as written.
During his speech, Trump refused to commit to the Article 5 pledge to assist other NATO members in times of crisis. It was already a slap in the face to reiterate that position at NATO’s own headquarters while face-to-face with NATO leaders. But it was even more embarrassing given where Trump was standing — in front of a crumpled beam from the World Trade Center — as September 11th is the only time Article 5 has ever actually been invoked.
Now, Politico is reporting that the speech (which National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all worked on in the weeks leading up to the event) was not what Trump read verbatim. Trump’s staff was so sure of the speech that the New York Times was told a day before about the line affirming that Article 5 would be upheld. How the speech was altered is a matter of rumor and speculation. One possibility is that Trump himself removed the line and decided to use the speech to reiterate his position on NATO spending, Article 5, and NATO allies owing the U.S. money for “protection.” Another is that Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller were behind the alteration.
The end result was that McMaster, Mattis, and Tillerson were put in the unenviable position Sean Spicer that so often finds himself in, and which has driven the Press Secretary to hide among shrubs to put off the discomfort of having to explain the administration’s actions. The trio has since tried to assure the international community that Trump’s only intention was a kind of foreign policy “tough love” that will ultimately improve NATO for all. Politico quotes NSC spokesman Michael Anton, who stated, “The president attended the summit to show his support for the NATO alliance, including Article 5. His continued effort to secure greater defense commitments from other nations is making our alliance stronger.”
The problem comes down — as so many things in the Trump administration do — to Russia. Article 5 may have only been invoked once before, but with so many European countries sitting in proximity to an increasingly aggressive Russia, foreign leaders are painfully aware that they need to plan ahead for all contingencies. President Obama sent fresh U.S. troops to Europe through NATO for that exact reason at the tail end of his final term. Equally concerning is that if Trump did indeed tweak his speech, it indicates a profound lack of unity and trust within the White House, and that fears about Trump’s impulsiveness when it comes to foreign policy might not have been overblown.