NATO Allies Doubting Biden’s Prospects Seek Out Trump Circle

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden managed to reassure NATO leaders about his fitness for office with a strong speech at the opening of the alliance’s 75th anniversary summit, but it wasn’t enough to quiet growing doubts about his chance of winning November’s US election.

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Delegations from across Europe were quietly slotting in meetings with advisers and others with links to Donald Trump as they grapple with the possibility — some say likelihood — that he will reclaim the Oval Office. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a controversial NATO member, is due to meet Trump himself at Mar-a-Lago Thursday after the talks with allies in Washington.

Most officials who spoke to Bloomberg said they were hoping to get a clearer sense of just what a Trump victory might mean for an alliance he regularly targets for criticism. Some sought to look on the bright side, arguing that Trump would be hard-pressed to follow through on his threats to undermine security guarantees for NATO members or push Ukraine into a hasty peace deal with Vladimir Putin.

But European officials who had expressed confidence about Biden’s reelection hopes as recently as this spring were more downbeat in private conversations this week.

Publicly, leaders praised Biden’s address to the opening of the three-day summit Tuesday as confirming that the 81-year-old president is still sharp and capable of doing the job after a disastrous debate performance. At the same time, they watched his every move for another gaffe that would further undermine his electoral hopes.

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“I saw yesterday a strong president,” Dutch Prime Minister Dick Schoof said after the speech. “He’s the president, he’s the man we do business with.”

Orban’s meeting with Trump, less than a week after he sat down with Putin in Moscow, is likely to fan concerns that the Hungarian leader is working as an intermediary between the two men. The former president has said he believes he could convince Putin to end his war in Ukraine and release Americans detained in Russia if he were elected to a second term.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has not asked the Hungarian leader to lay the groundwork for some sort of Ukraine-Russia peace deal, according to one of the people familiar with the Orban visit, who was granted anonymity to discuss it. The person described the visit, days before the Republican National Convention, as more of an informal get-together.

Orban, who took over the European Union’s rotating presidency on July 1, also met with President Xi Jinping in China this week and his diplomatic initiatives have provoked anger elsewhere in Europe, where officials say he is going way beyond his remit.

“We know that we are a small country, so we try to play above our weight,” Balazs Orban, the Hungarian premier’s political director, told Bloomberg Wednesday in Washington. “Hungary is now the only country which can talk to everybody at such short notice. We are involved and I think it’s a value whether we like it or not.”

With polls showing Trump has a sizeable lead over Biden, allied doubts about his prospects are growing, according to officials and diplomats. All eyes are on whether Biden can get through a press conference set for Thursday without a major gaffe, they said. At Tuesday’s ceremony, some said they watched nervously as Biden hung a medal around the neck of outgoing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, fearing that the US leader might slip.

One official warned that the focus on Biden distracted from the summit’s key goal of ensuring continued support for Ukraine. The allied diplomats and officials asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive matters about another NATO leader.

Biden faced new calls on Capitol Hill Wednesday to step aside. Even actor George Clooney went public with an opinion piece Wednesday calling on him not to run. It was an irony of sorts: after a summit in Italy last month, Biden said goodbye to many of the same leaders and joined a California fundraiser hosted by Clooney instead of attending a Ukraine peace summit.

Many NATO and European Union nations have asked for meetings with officials who served under Trump, as well as with prominent Republican legislators seen to be close to him, according to people familiar with the planning.

Among the targets were former US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, former US Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, former National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and former acting National Security Adviser Keith Kellogg, the people said, requesting anonymity to discuss the conversations.

Diplomats assume that these officials, along with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would serve in the next Trump administration. The allied officials are also reaching out to members of Congress who have Trump’s ear on foreign policy, including Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, among others, the people said. Many countries are also sending ambassadors to the GOP convention in July to try to make contact with future Trump administration officials, they said.

Hristjian Mickoski, the prime minister of North Macedonia, had dinner with Grenell, saying on social media the discussion was “fruitful and friendly.”

European officials tried to be sanguine about the prospects of a change of US administration, calling it a normal part of the democratic process. Other leaders touted increased defense spending, something Trump has long demanded. And others seemed to tailor their remarks in language that Trump might understand, as when Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur compared NATO to a golf club.

“When you pay your fee in the golf club, you can play,” Pevkur said at an event Monday. “It doesn’t matter how big is your wallet.”

Even Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged NATO allies to act quickly to help his country repel Russia’s invasion instead of waiting for the election results in November. “Don’t wait months — America can be great every day,” he said in a riff on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to pull out of NATO and expressed admiration for Putin. His advisers have floated the idea of a two-tiered alliance in which the common defense commitments would only apply to countries that have met defense spending targets.

One European official said talk of “Trump-proofing” NATO and support for Ukraine would be counterproductive. Latvian Foreign Minister Baiba Braze also sought to play down concerns, telling Bloomberg Television in an interview that her country “worked very well with Trump administration before.”

NATO has been working to ensure that allies’ weapons deliveries to Ukraine are insulated from political change in Washington. Part of the Ukraine package leaders will sign off this week will include a greater role for NATO to coordinate the deliveries and allies’ training initiatives.

“It’s actually in Europe’s interest to ‘America-proof’ their defense and to start operating on the assumption that the United States has other, more urgent national security priorities, and domestic ones as well,” said Dan Caldwell, a policy adviser at the think-tank Defense Priorities who worked in the former Trump administration. He said he wasn’t speaking for the campaign.

“We recognize that even though the United States is the most powerful country in the world, our power is still limited and must be used judiciously,” he said.

--With assistance from Iain Marlow, Patrick Donahue, Gregory L. White, Greg Sullivan, Milda Seputyte, Alberto Nardelli and Andrea Palasciano.

(Updates with Orban adviser comments in 10th paragraph.)

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