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From NATO Critic To Defender, Trump Calls Macron's Comments 'Nasty'

President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron aired their differences on the sidelines of a NATO leaders' summit in London.
Ludovic Marin
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron aired their differences on the sidelines of a NATO leaders' summit in London.

Sitting next to each other with cameras rolling on Tuesday, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron made their differences known on trade, Turkey, Russia, ISIS and the appropriate role for NATO.

Early on in the extended exchange between the leaders of two of the most significant powers in the NATO alliance, Trump expressed confidence that their personal connection could overcome policy disagreements.

"That's usually the case with the two of us," Trump said. "We get it worked out."

But earlier in the day, when Macron was not sitting by his side, Trump had sharp words for the French president. Trump took umbrage with Macron's recent assessment that the NATO alliance is experiencing "brain death."

"That is a very, very, very nasty statement," Trump said of Macron, who in an Economist interview last month questioned NATO's strength "in light of the commitment of the United States."

Trump repeatedly called NATO "obsolete" during his presidential campaign. The alliance was formed after World War II to create a bulwark against Soviet aggression. As president, Trump has badgered other countries in the 70-year-old alliance to boost their defense spending while complaining that the United States is carrying everyone else's weight.

"Nobody needs NATO more than France," Trump said during a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters at the start of a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. "And, frankly, the one that benefits, really the least, is the United States. We benefit the least. We're helping Europe. ... And that's why I think that when France makes a statement like they made about NATO, it's a very dangerous statement for them to make."

It was a shift in perspective for Trump, who has gone from constantly criticizing NATO and failing to explicitly endorse Article 5 — the mutual defense agreement — to now saying "NATO serves a great purpose" and taking credit for what he called improvements.

"NATO, which was really heading in the wrong direction three years ago, was heading down, if you look at a graph. It was to a point where I don't think they could have gotten on much longer," Trump said. "Now it's actually very strong and getting stronger."

Trump attributes this to countries stepping up and bulking up their defense budgets, "I think really at my behest."

While meeting with Trump, Macron did not pull his punches. "But when you speak about NATO, it's not just about money. We have to be respectful," Macron said in one of several moments of pointed contrast.

Trump and Macron have had a generally good relationship, even as they disagree strongly on climate policy and the Iran nuclear agreement, among other things. Another item putting that relationship to the test is trade.

On the eve of the NATO gathering, the Trump administration proposed 100% tariffs on nearly $2.5 billion in French goods, cheese and wine. The tariffs would serve as retaliation for the French Digital Services Tax, which the U.S. trade representative says discriminates against U.S. tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

"Emmanuel had an idea: Let's tax those companies. Well, they're American companies," Trump said. "I'm not going to let people take advantage of American companies. Because if anyone's going to take advantage of the American companies, it's going to be us. It's not going to be France."

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.