Donald Trump declared during the Nato summit that he had forced member states to raise defence spending to unprecedented levels and to do so at the fastest rate ever – only to be immediately contradicted by other western leaders and with his own officials failing to provide evidence to support the claim.
The US president, who had started one of the most crucial summits in Nato’s history with attacks on allies, especially Germany, continued the assault over their military budgets and spoke of taking unilateral action – seen as a threat to leave the alliance.
At one point, it is claimed, Mr Trump is said to have warned during a heated closed-door session: “I can do whatever I want because this alliance has no legitimacy,” and that “spending must be raised by January 2019 or the US will go it alone”.
The outburst, on the second day of the conference, took place at a meeting about plans for Georgia and Azerbaijan to join Nato, which Mr Trump had turned into one about Nato funding.
As a result, the Georgian and Azerbaijani leaders were asked to leave the room, and an emergency meeting had to be called.
Mr Trump then called an unexpected press conference, during which he maintained that he had made alliance leaders agree to important new commitments.
“I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening” about defence spending, he said.
“And as a result, they are going to up it to levels like they have never thought it before. What they are doing are spending at a much faster clip,” he said.
I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening
US President Donald Trump
“The additional money they had agreed to put up has really been amazing ... some are at 2 per cent, others have definitely agreed to go to 2 per cent and some are going back to get the approval and which they will get to 2 per cent.
Mr Trump had demanded, the day before, that Nato members must double their defence spending to 4 per cent of GDP.
Asked whether he had threatened to withdraw from Nato and whether he could actually do so without congressional approval, Mr Trump said: “I probably can, but that is unnecessary. They have stepped up today to a level they have not stepped up to before.
“The United States was not being treated fairly, but now we are. I believe in Nato, Nato is now a fine-tuned machine.”
The US president, flanked by secretary of state Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser – the latest people to hold the posts in the constant churn of his White House – said he took “total credit” for other Nato countries raising their defence spending by $33bn (£25bn) last year and the big splurge by them allegedly due to come.
He has been able to achieve this, Mr Trump wanted to stress, because he was “a very stable genius”. At the emergency meeting “there was a great collegial spirit, people thanked me”.
Within minutes of Mr Trump’s press conference ending, French president Emmanuel Macron said that the other alliance members had simply agreed to keep to the spending commitments which had already been made.
Asked about Nato sources revealing that Mr Trump had said the US will “go it alone”, the French president said there was no direct threat of withdrawing from the alliance.
On the first day of the summit, Mr Trump had demanded that Germany must spend 2 per cent on defence immediately, and not by 2025, as Berlin plans to do.
Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said in response: “Our budget is determined by the German Bundestag ... The decisions that we have to make, how much money will be spent, is a decision that we make autonomously, that’s made by the German Bundestag.”
German officials said after Mr Trump’s press conference that position remained the same despite the US president hectoring the German chancellor over the defence budget, saying at one point: “You, Angela, must do more.”
Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte stressed that he agreed “no increase in spending” beyond that previously agreed by Rome, which last year spent 1.1 per cent on defence and is labouring under heavy debts that severely limit its options.
That discussion has made Nato stronger. It has created a new sense of urgency
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
And Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez – who, like the summit host, Belgian PM Charles Michel, was singled out in the room by Mr Trump for spending less that 1 per cent of GDP on defence – said Madrid would also meet the target by 2024 as previously agreed.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg could provide no details to corroborate Mr Trump’s claims of massive and fast defence spending, despite repeated questions from the media.
Asked about the US president’s threats to pull out of the alliance and the need for an emergency meeting, he responded: “We had a very frank and fair discussion ... That discussion has made Nato stronger. It has created a new sense of urgency.”