BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump barreled into a NATO summit Wednesday with claims that a natural gas pipeline deal has left Germany "totally controlled" and "captive to Russia" as he lobbed fresh complaints about allies' "delinquent" defense spending during the opening of what was expected to be a fraught two-day meeting.
Trump also suggested that NATO allies commit to spending 4 percent of their GDPs on defense — double the current goal of 2 percent by 2024.
The president, in a testy exchange with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that kicked off his visit, took issue with the U.S. protecting Germany as it strikes deals with Russia.
"I have to say, I think it's very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we're supposed to be guarding against Russia," Trump said at a breakfast with Stoltenberg. "We're supposed to protect you against Russia but they're paying billions of dollars to Russia and I think that's very inappropriate."
Trump repeatedly described Germany as "captive to Russia" because of the energy deal and urged NATO to look into the issue.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back, insisting that Germany makes its own decisions and drawing on her own background growing up in communist East Germany behind the Iron Curtain.
"I've experienced myself a part of Germany controlled by the Soviet Union and I'm very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany and can thus say that we can determine our own policies and make our own decisions and that's very good," she said.
The president appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring gas from Russia to Germany's northeastern Baltic coast, bypassing Eastern European nations like Poland and Ukraine and doubling the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany. The vast undersea pipeline is opposed by the U.S. and some other EU members, who warn it could give Moscow greater leverage over Western Europe. It's expected to be online at the end of 2019
In their back-and-forth, Stoltenberg stressed to Trump that NATO members have been able to work together despite their differences. "I think that two world wars and the Cold War taught us that we are stronger together than apart," he told the president, trying to calm tensions.
Trump's pipeline criticism was an unusual line of attack for a president who has appeared eager to improve relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia tried to undermine Western democracy by meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Trump win. Trump has long argued that improving relaxations with Russia would be good for both nations.
Back in the U.S., Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer issued a joint statement describing Trump's "brazen insults and denigration of one of America's most steadfast allies, Germany," as "an embarrassment."
"His behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies," they wrote.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch also took issue with Trump, saying "I don't agree with that. Germans wouldn't agree with that. They are a very strong people."
But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a strong supporter of the president, said the pipeline issue strikes at the "heart of NATO unity."
"The pipeline gets cheap Russian gas to Germany while bypassing smaller Eastern European nations, allowing Russia to pressure them while Germany is held harmless," he tweeted, adding: "No amount of preening in Berlin will cover this nakedly selfish policy."