BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump declared a much-disputed victory at the annual NATO summit Thursday, after throwing it into crisis by forcing an emergency session suggesting the United States could leave the nearly 70-year-old alliance and then suddenly dropping his demands that allies immediately spend more on their militaries.
After claiming success in Brussels at an impromptu news conference, Trump flew to London – but not before setting a time bomb ahead of his meetings with an embattled Prime Minister Theresa May.
In an interview with a British tabloid before boarding his plane, Trump attacked May, touted her rival Boris Johnson as a "great prime minister" and said immigration had cost Europe its culture.
"I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it's never going to be what it was, and I don't mean that in a positive way," Trump told the Sun, a tabloid owned by his sometime ally Rupert Murdoch. "Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame."
His remarks, in which he said May had mishandled negotiations over Brexit, the planned British exit from the European Union, seemed certain to fuel a growing revolt against her within her Conservative Party. Johnson, who resigned earlier this week from the job of foreign minister, has been weighing a challenge to May over her handling of the Brexit talks.
The comments – an extraordinary intervention by a U.S. president in an allied country's politics – came after a NATO summit dominated by Trump's demands that the 28 other member nations increase their spending on defense, in fairness to the United States.
At the news conference, Trump insisted they had agreed, saying, "They're going to up it at levels that they've never thought of before."
Other leaders, however, denied that they'd made any significantly new pledges beyond what they'd agreed to in 2014, under some pressure from President Barack Obama.
"No increase in spending," Italy's new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said of his country's military budget.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in his own closing news conference, said NATO members generally had made no new commitments. He also said that Trump "never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from NATO."
Trump's self-generated controversies in two European capitals in a single day captured more than any episode to date his unabashedly disruptive style. One influential British publication recently depicted him as riding the globe like a wrecking ball.
Trump's diplomatic tour will end Monday in Helsinki, Finland, with perhaps his most fraught encounter: his first official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The diplomatic confusion Trump caused among NATO allies left them more uncertain than before of the United States' commitment and apprehensive about his get-together with Putin. At NATO's close, he cast himself as a savior, yet it was a crisis of his own making that distracted from an agenda focused on Russia, cybersecurity and anti-terrorism.