In a one-hour interview with the Fox News broadcaster on Wednesday, Trump touched on key issues ahead of November’s presidential election, but also took aim at Germany, as the United States begins withdrawing tens of thousands of troops from the European country.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper announced in late July that 11,900 US service personnel would be redeployed from Germany, and the president accused the European country of taking advantage of the United States.
"But Germany has to pay. Germany is a wealthy country and they have to pay, and we’re not going to have 52,000 troops in Germany, where they make a fortune off the troops. You know, they build cities around our troops. We’ll let ourselves get rich first, so Germany took advantage and that’s what happens," Trump said during the interview.
The president has previously criticized Germany for failing to meet the NATO threshold of spending two percent of GDP on defence. At a summit in November, NATO member states agreed to spend $400 billion more on defence by 2024, and Trump told the broadcaster that he was to thank for this deal being reached.
However, the German government was still failing to pay the required amount for its defence needs, the president said, adding that Berlin has been "delinquent" over the issue.
"Germany was very delinquent. They owed us billions of dollars, billions of dollars to NATO. They should be paying their bills. They’re a rich country, they should be paying their bills. Why should we defend countries and not be reimbursed?" Trump said during the interview.
Berlin and Washington have also clashed over the Nord Stream 2 project, a gas pipeline that will bring Russian gas to the European market. The Trump administration has slapped sanctions on the pipeline and warned of further punitive measures against companies that participate in the completion of the project.
Speaking on Wednesday, Trump said that he had difficulties in understanding how Berlin was ready to pay Moscow for gas but struggled to reimburse Washington for matters of defence.
"It’s very interesting. We’re supposed to protect Germany from Russia. That’s fine. But Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for energy. So, we’re protecting Germany from Russia. Germany is paying Russia. What’s that all about?" the president remarked.
The German population appears to be divided over the US troop withdrawal. In a fresh Der Spiegel poll published on Tuesday, 23 percent of respondents said that the partial pullout was "definitely good," in comparison to roughly 28 percent of Germans who view the withdrawal as "definitely bad."
Berlin Bides Time in Wait for Biden?
German politicians, such as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, have stood up to Trump in recent months, criticizing the president’s comments on defence spending and the sanctions imposed on the Nord Stream 2 project.
In mid-July, Maas reminded Washington that European energy policy is decided on the continent and criticized the threat of further US sanctions against the project. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also come forward and stated that Germany stands firmly against extraterritorial sanctions.
The pressure on Nord Stream 2 comes as the United States attempts to bolster exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe. The US says that the new pipeline may pose a national security risk, but it appears that the project threatens Washington’s business interests.
According to Tanguy de Wilde d’Estmael, a professor of political science and international relations at Belgium’s UCLouvain university, the United States can do little to stop Nord Stream 2, adding that the project will have mutual benefits for Russia and Europe.
"For Nord Stream 2, which is almost completed, what can Trump do? The enrichment of Russians through buying gas from them is a weak argument. Europe is getting richer in this relationship too, and economic interdependence with Russia is a good thing. I don't see how Trump could prevent the opening of the pipeline," de Wilde d’Estmael told Sputnik.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump mulled whether to pull the United States out of NATO. However, in the years that followed, the president has demanded that other countries increase their financial contributions substantially.
NATO Director-General Jens Stoltenberg has tended to stay quiet on this issue, and the relative silence from Berlin over the partial withdrawal of US troops may suggest that the international community is biding its time ahead of the November presidential election in the US, the UCLouvain professor said.
"The growing impression, given the lack of reaction in Germany or NATO in recent weeks, is that everyone is playing for time and hoping that Donald Trump will not be re-elected in November. Angela Merkel is silent, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general is silent," de Wilde d’Estmael commented.
George H. Bush, who led the United States into the first Gulf War, was the last president to only serve one term in office after he lost the 1992 election to Democrat candidate Bill Clinton. According to de Wilde d’Estmael, US presidents can only really exert their authority during their second term in office.
"Every president a few weeks before the presidential re-election is a bit of a 'lame duck'. It is only after being elected for a second term that a president can ‘work for history.’ We are in the waiting phase," the UCLouvain professor commented.
US Pressure on Europe Nothing New
The Trump administration’s pressure on Europe to conform to Washington’s desires for defence and energy policy is hardly a marked change from decades gone past.
In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan attempted to stop the construction of the Soviet Union’s planned Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod export gas pipeline, which had the support of West Germany, at every opportunity.
According to de Wilde d’Estmael, the Obama administration also tried to get European countries to make greater contributions to NATO, with limited success.
"For 10 years and more, the United States has wanted the Europeans to assume a more serious part of their defence within NATO … What Trump is demanding is therefore not new. It is the method that has changed and it must be admitted that Trump has scored points with his bluntness and that European countries, such as Germany or Belgium, are starting to increase their military spending, even if they are dragging their feet," the political science professor commented.
Trump’s rhetoric, which throughout his three-and-a-half years in office has been contradictory and full of slogans, differs from many political leaders that have come before him, de Wilde d’Estmael added.
"It is true that his language can be shocking and out of the ordinary in diplomacy and in our democracies. A president’s interventions should be infrequent and non-compulsive. He should not contradict himself or be toxic. Trump is an example of the opposite with his tweets and punchy statements," the academic said.
These worries were raised following an interview with HBO that aired on 3 August. During the interview, the president was pressured on his administration's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and appeared to look flustered, relying on chart print outs to prove his point.
According to recent Gallup polling data, Trump’s approval rating stands at 41 percent, but party preferences have swung significantly towards the Democrats following a summer of civil unrest after the police killing of George Floyd in late May.
In mid-July, the Democrats held an 11-point lead over the Republican Party, potentially paving the way for Joe Biden to take office and reshape US policy and diplomacy, both at home and abroad.