BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump signaled he was ready for a transatlantic brawl Tuesday as he embarked on a consequential week of international diplomacy, taking aim at vulnerable British Prime Minister Theresa May and suggesting that meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin might be easier than talking with Western allies at the NATO summit here.
Leaders converged on Brussels fearful of what the combative U.S. president might say or do to rupture the liberal world order, with some European diplomats privately predicting calamity.
As he departed Washington on Tuesday, Trump stoked the deep divisions in May's government to undermine the leader of America's closest historic ally on the eve of the NATO meeting. Asked if May should remain in power, Trump said, “That's up to the people,” while also complimenting her top rival, Boris Johnson.
Some of Europe's counters to Trump, including May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arrive with heavy domestic political baggage of their own, making them vulnerable in negotiations with Trump as they seek to protect the Western alliance from his impulses on defense spending and trade.
The prime minister faces a rebellion from advocates of a hard break from the European Union, who say she has been waffling, and is in danger of losing control. Johnson, a potential successor to May, resigned Monday as foreign secretary and reportedly savaged her Brexit plan as “a big turd.”
Trump praised him in personal terms: “Boris Johnson is a friend of mine. He's been very, very nice to me and very supportive. And maybe we'll speak to him when I get over there. I like Boris Johnson. I've always liked him.”
Trump's seven-day journey begins in Brussels and will take him to England for his first visit there as president, to Scotland for a weekend respite at his private golf course and finally to Helsinki for his tête-à-tête with Putin.
European leaders are as concerned about what concessions he might make to Putin – such as recognizing Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine – as they are about the chaos he could create at the NATO summit.
Ahead of the NATO meetings that begin here Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to strike an optimistic note and play down the simmering disputes.
“Our summit comes at a time when some are questioning the strength of the transatlantic bond and I would not be surprised if we have robust discussions at the summit, including on defense spending,” Stoltenberg told reporters Tuesday.
But European Council President Donald Tusk was more direct in anticipating that Trump may have designs on sowing discord, delivering a stinging warning to the visiting Americans president.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies,” Tusk said. “After all, you don't have that many.”
As he departed the White House, Trump offered a rebuttal.
“Well, we do have a lot of allies,” he told reporters before boarding Marine One. “But we cannot be taken advantage of. We're being taken advantage of by the European Union. We lost $151 billion last year on trade. And on top of that, we spend at least 70 percent for NATO. And, frankly, it helps them a lot more than it helps us. So we'll see what happens. We have a long, beautiful week.”