BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump unleashed his harshest broadside yet against a European ally on Wednesday, accusing Germany of being "totally controlled by Russia" and of not meeting its obligations to the NATO alliance.
"Germany, as far I’m concerned, is captive to Russia," Trump said.
Trump's extraordinary rhetoric signaled that he would continue his aggressive, America-first attitude toward the United States' closest allies – even as he himself prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in an effort to improve U.S.-Russian relations.
Speaking to reporters after Trump’s remarks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel shot back that she would not be lectured about Russian control of Germany, having grown up in the Soviet-dominated East Germany.
“I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union," she said, without mentioning Trump by name.
Trump's verbal attack on Germany came in his first official event in Brussels Wednesday, setting a combative tone for the two-day summit of the alliance in Brussels. He leaves Brussels for two days in London Thursday, followed by a weekend in Scotland and his summit with Putin in Helsinki next Monday.
The tense start to the NATO summit followed a contentious Group of Seven summit in Canada last month, when Trump refused to sign on to a routine joint declaration calling for a reduction in tariffs.
Trump has criticized European allies for not spending what they agreed to on defense. Under a 2014 agreement, NATO set that amount at 2 percent of each country's economic output.
But Trump upped the ante in a closed-door meeting with allies Wednesday, demanding they double that amount to 4 percent of gross domestic product. At a current spending level of 3.5 percent, even the United States does not meet that mark.
Germany spends just 1.24 percent on defense. But Trump also lambasted Germany's support for a pipeline that would bring Russian natural gas through the Baltic Sea to central Europe.
"So we're supposed to protect Germany, but they're getting their energy from Russia. Explain that. And it can't be explained," he said.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a commercial venture, but the German government has given its approval to the project.
After a face-to-face meeting with Merkel later, Trump said the gas pipeline came up but seemed to shift his tone. "We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor, we have a tremendous relationship with Germany," he said.
A stoic Merkel responded, "I am pleased to have this opportunity to be here for this exchange of views."
Merkel emphasized the German role in fighting alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and its commitment to the collective defense.
More: As he arrives at NATO summit, President Trump hounds allies over 'delinquent' defense spending
Trump's comments prompted both the House and Senate to introduce non-binding resolutions affirming U.S. support for the alliance. The Senate resolution passed 97-2.
“I subscribe to the view that we should not be criticizing our president while he is overseas," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "But let me say a couple things. NATO is indispensable. It’s as important today as it ever has been."
Ryan said he has concerns about the Germany-Russia gas pipeline and has brought those up privately in his own meetings with European allies.
Democrats, however, called Trump's insults of Germany an "embarassment."
"His behavior this morning is another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies," said a statement from the House and Senate Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.
Trump has linked defense and trade throughout his presidency, using national security powers to impose tariffs against close allies like Canada and trade deficits as an argument for cutting U.S. defense aid to Europe.
At NATO, Trump pressed his recurring complaint that European allies aren't paying enough toward the common defense of the alliance. A new NATO analysis released Tuesday shows only five of the 29 allies – the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia and Latvia – meet the benchmark of 2 percent of economic output spent on defense.
"Just look at the chart," Trump said at the breakfast. "Many countries are not paying what they should. And, frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they're delinquent, as far as I'm concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them."
That complaint is a misrepresentation of the 2014 agreement reached at a summit in Wales. While each country agreed to strive for the 2 percent mark within 10 years, that spending is supposed to be on their own defense and is not paid to the United States or NATO directly. There was no provision made for making up deficiencies in past years.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg credited Trump with helping to prompt the largest defense buildup in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
"He has a clear message, I think, that has increased interest and understanding of defense spending, and what we’ve seen is that defense spending has started to increase," Stoltenberg said. "So that's what I have to say about that."
In a joint declaration signed by all 29 allies, NATO reaffirmed the Wales commitments but acknowledged that "unprecedented progress" has been made by that goal. Unlike the G-7, the United States signed on to the NATO declaration, making it unanimous.
In other business at the summit, NATO agreed to begin the process of allowing the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to join the alliance as its 30th member — but only if the country changing its name to North Macedonia. Greece has blocked the accession process over the name issue because many Greeks identify as Macedonians.
"There's no way to join NATO without changing the name," Stoltenberg said.
The alliance also committed to leave the door open for other countries to join eventually – if they agree to certain political reforms. Those countries include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine.
Deirdre Shesgreen contributed from Washington.