Five things to watch for at Trump’s NATO meetings

President Trump left Washington on Monday for a two-day trip to the United Kingdom for a meeting of NATO leaders — just as the House impeachment inquiry enters a new stage. 

Trump is often a wild card at NATO meetings, having criticized the alliance and pushed member countries to increase their contributions.

Here are five things to watch.

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Does impeachment overshadow the trip? 

Impeachment was front of mind for Trump, who tweeted after his White House departure for London that it was “Not nice!” for Democrats to schedule a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the same day as his overseas meetings.

The White House is refusing to participate, accusing Democrats of robbing Trump of due process. In his letter declining to participate, White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) of purposely scheduling it to overlap with Trump’s NATO meetings.

Trump has meetings planned for Wednesday with the leaders of Germany, Italy and Denmark, among other nations. But he is often fixated on cable news headlines and will likely be hard-pressed to avoid chiming in during breaks in his schedule.

Will Trump stay out of U.K. politics?

The gathering comes 10 days before a pivotal Dec. 12 parliamentary election in the United Kingdom and is likely to test Trump’s ability to steer clear of domestic issues in a foreign country.

Trump, who is unpopular in the U.K., is not expected to have a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hoping the elections give his Conservative Party a boost as he seeks to conclude the country’s removal from the European Union.

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A senior administration official said Friday that Trump was “absolutely cognizant” of not “wading into other country’s elections.” 

But the president has made no secret of his preference for Johnson, speaking warmly of him in interviews and criticizing one of his chief rivals, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

“President Trump can be incredibly disruptive to the U.K. general election,” said Heather Conley, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In fact, the U.S. has been very much part of this conversation in the election, particularly around a potential future U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday wouldn’t rule out Trump meeting Johnson on the sidelines of the event, saying the schedule likely hadn’t been completely set. 

“I don’t know that the schedule has been completely set for things like that,” Conway said. “Sometimes you have pull-asides, sometimes you have formal meetings.” 

Simmering tensions on NATO

Trump isn’t the only leader heading into the NATO meeting under a cloud of controversy.

French President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance as experiencing “brain death” in a recent interview with The Economist and warned of a waning commitment by the United States to defend NATO members.  

Trump is slated to meet one-on-one with Macron on Tuesday and will have a bilateral meeting Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the president has chastised at past NATO gatherings over a gas pipeline project.

“That is part of having an alliance of 29, soon to be 30, democratic nations,” a senior administration official said. “But I think, underneath all of the democratic politics hurly-burly, the alliance members are fully in accord on the goals of their shared commitments in this institute, absolutely.”

The U.S. slashed its contribution toward the alliance’s administrative costs and investments, a decision that experts called a largely symbolic move that puts the U.S. commitment to the fund on par with Germany. 

The president has frequently complained that the U.S. carries a disproportionate defense burden for NATO and has repeatedly urged alliance members to increase their contributions toward defense spending. That effort has been largely successful, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has credited Trump with an uptick in commitments from other member nations.

Trump on Monday took a victory lap over the increase in defense spending.

“In the 3 decades before my election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds, and only 3 other NATO members were meeting their financial obligations. Since I took office, the number of NATO allies fulfilling their obligations more than DOUBLED, and NATO spending increased by $130B!” the president tweeted. 

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Past NATO meetings have been hotbeds for controversy, and the uncertainty over the future of the alliance could provide kindling for controversy.

“The general sense is that this meeting has been curtailed to try to limit disagreements as we have seen at previous summits,” said Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who noted that the meeting will follow a short two-day schedule and is not being billed as a full summit. 

What global issues take forefront? 

NATO members critical of Turkey’s incursion into Syria will have a chance to confront Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems is also likely to be a topic of discussion, coming just weeks after Trump welcomed Erdoğan for a meeting at the White House. 

“I suspect President Erdoğan will hear from many alliance members that — their concern over the activation of the S-400 radar,” a senior administration official said Friday. “We have been very, very blunt with him that that radar is inconsistent with Turkey’s duties as a NATO member, and particularly its participation in a bilateral sense in the F-35 program. That message will be reinforced across the alliance.” 

Russian aggression is a regular topic of NATO meetings but may end up taking a back seat to other issues, including Syria, as well as evolving security threats and defense spending. 

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Can Trump stay on message?

Trump’s rhetoric will be closely watched during the two-day event, which some observers and administration officials see as an opportunity for Trump to show he’s hard at work while Democrats are focused on impeachment.

“I think in many ways this trip is really for President Trump to in some ways escape the impeachment inquiry here and focus on what I believe now increasingly he views as his own personal foreign policy success,” Conley said, referring to his push to get other NATO members to commit more to defense spending.

But Trump’s foreign trips are often marred by controversial statements. His state visit to Japan was highlighted by his criticism of Joe Biden, his trip to Normandy was bookended with a skipped cemetery visit and attacks on former special counsel Robert Mueller and his last trip to London started with tweets ripping Mayor Sadiq Khan.

If his NATO meetings go awry, Trump may be quick to blame it on domestic distractions just as he did earlier in the year.

The president blamed a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing with his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for a breakdown in February denuclearization talks with North Korea. The explosive hearing took place in Washington while Trump was in Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong Un

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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