BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump claimed credit Thursday for reinvigorating the NATO alliance, a day after he threw a gathering of U.S. allies into turmoil by upbraiding member countries over defense spending and singling out Germany for the harshest criticism.
Wednesday, the first day of a two-day summit of NATO allies, Trump publicly slammed Germany as a ''captive to Russia," prompting a terse retort from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Later, in a closed-door meeting, Trump demanded that NATO allies double their defense spending to 4 percent of gross domestic product.
As the Brussels summit wrapped up, Trump said that after pressuring European countries to step up their contributions to NATO, he received pledges for increased defense spending. Other NATO leaders disputed the claim.
"So now we're very happy and have a very powerful, very, very strong NATO. More powerful than it was two days ago," he told a news conference Thursday before leaving Brussels en route to the United Kingdom.
French President Emmanuel Macron pointed to previous commitments NATO members made to increase defense spending by 2024.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he had made no decision to increase defense spending.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed at Stansted Airport, 40 miles northeast of the British capital Thursday afternoon local time. Trump will meet with Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II before heading to Scotland on the four-day visit.
Monday, Trump is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki to discuss a range of issues critically important to the United States and its European allies: Russia's incursions into Ukraine, its attempts to interfere in Western elections and its violations of arms control treaties.
After the first day of the NATO summit spotlighted divisions in the alliance, Trump used the second day to play down perceptions of a crisis.
Trump asserted he has the authority to pull out of the treaty unilaterally, but the additional commitments he received at the two-day summit made that "unnecessary."
Pressed by reporters about whether he threatened to pull out of NATO, Trump acknowledged, "It was a little tough for a little while."
"I told people that I would be very unhappy if they didn't up their commitments very substantially, because the United States has been paying a tremendous amount,” Trump said. “And then today and yesterday, I was probably a little bit more firm.”
Wednesday, he criticized Germany for approving a pipeline to bring Russian natural gas through the Baltic Sea. Then, in a closed-door session with allies, he suggested that even spending the agreed-upon 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense wasn't enough. He wanted 4 percent.
His criticism softened during the 35-minute news conference Thursday. He described NATO as a “fine-tuned machine” and “much stronger than it was,” and he said the U.S. commitment to the organization “remains very strong.”
He insisted that NATO was as united as ever, despite the very public rift.
“To see the level of spirit in that room is incredible,” Trump said.
NATO allies have been unsettled by Trump's overtures to Putin. The president said Thursday that he views Putin not as a friend or an enemy but as a "competitor" and repeated his desire for better relations with the Kremlin.
He remained noncommittal on whether the United States might recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, which the United States views as illegal.
"So that was on Barack Obama's watch. That was not on Trump's watch," he said. "What will happen with Crimea from this point on, I can't tell you."
Trump's last-minute Brussels news conference avoided a repeat of the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month, which blew up after Trump refused to sign on to a joint declaration and left the summit early to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would not be pushed around by the United States on trade, Trump responded with a tweet from Air Force One calling Trudeau "very dishonest and weak."
Asked by a Croatian reporter whether he would change his tone on NATO upon leaving Brussels, Trump said his message was consistent.
"I'm a very stable genius," he said.
Earlier Thursday, he repeated his complaint that the United States carries a trade deficit with the European Union even as those countries rely on U.S. aid to pay for their defense.
"Presidents have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Germany and other rich NATO Nations to pay more toward their protection from Russia," he tweeted. "They pay only a fraction of their cost. The U.S. pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidize Europe, and loses Big on Trade!"
John Fritze reported from Washington.