James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
9:30 A.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’m here today to provide some context on the President’s meeting this afternoon with NATO Secretary General Jens Soltenberg. We expect the two leaders will exchange views on a wide range of topics in preparation for the meeting of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels on May 25th, the President’s first foreign trip since taking office.
In his meeting with the Secretary General, we expect the President will reaffirm the strong commitment of the United States to NATO, and the value he places on the transatlantic bond in general. He will emphasize the ironclad U.S. commitment to the collective defense of NATO allies under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
The President will also highlight the importance of NATO allies taking on their fair share of the burden of the collective defense of the North Atlantic region. In that connection, we expect the President and Secretary General to discuss how they can work with other NATO allies to increase defense budgets in line with the 2014 Wales pledge on defense investment. As a reminder, the Wales pledge commits all allies to “aim to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and of that 2 percent, to dedicate at least 20 percent to equipment procurement, and research and development.”
The President and the Secretary General will also discuss NATO’s role in supporting international efforts to fight terrorism globally. On Afghanistan, the President and Secretary General will discuss the ongoing review of our policy in order to ensure our efforts are fully coordinated with NATO allies and partners.
On Iraq, the two will discuss NATO’s ongoing training and capacity-building mission in Iraq, as well as potential additional contributions we could make to the international effort to support Iraq in countering ISIS.
Finally, we expect the President and the Secretary General to talk about NATO’s approach to Russia and to emphasize that Russia must uphold all of its commitments under the Minsk agreements to peacefully resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
And before I get to questions, of course, I would just remind everyone that on Monday, President Trump signed the United States instrument of ratification of the protocol for Montenegro’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and this followed, of course, the Senate’s March 28th overwhelming and bipartisan vote of advice and consent in support of ratification.
So with that, I will take your questions.
Q To what extent will they discuss Russia’s violation of the IMF treaty and options of how to respond? What are some of those options?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I can’t get into any specific options that they will discuss, but I imagine that will come up in the context of the broader Russia discussion that they’ll have today.
Q Is this going to be an awkward discussion, given that President Trump had called NATO “obsolete” during the campaign?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t anticipate it will be an awkward discussion. I think that the Secretary General has made clear that he also views it as a priority to get allies to shoulder a greater burden of defense investment. And so the President and Secretary General are likely to see eye-to-eye on that issue and talk about ways that they can cooperate together to work with allies to get defense spending up.
Q Do you think that the President’s view of NATO has evolved since the campaign?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t comment on any comments that were made during the campaign or the transition, and of course, I don’t know exactly — I can’t speak for what’s in the President’s mind right now, but the President has made it very clear repeatedly that he’s 100 percent committed to NATO. He has met already with several leader of NATO-allied countries — the UK, Germany, the Prime Minister of Denmark last week. He’s made over a dozen calls to leaders of NATO-allied countries and emphasized to all of them that he’s 100 percent committed to the Alliance.
Q You talked a lot about the 2 percent goal that was agreed in Wales. For Germany, that represents something like, what $60 billion additional spending per year on the military. What exactly do you want them to spend it on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Say the last part again.
Q What exactly would you like Germany to spend $60 billion a year on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, of course, the Germans have signed up to the Wales pledge, as have the other allies. And in the President’s meeting with Chancellor Merkel in March, Chancellor Merkel expressed very clearly that she and the German government continue to support the Wales pledge commitment to aim to move towards 2 percent of GDP by 2024. So it was not an area of disagreement between the President and the Chancellor. The Chancellor is firmly committed, as is her ruling coalition.
Q So what’s the — sorry to monopolize this — so what’s the goal? Everybody in Europe increase their spending so that your U.S. forces can scale down in Europe? I mean, what’s the end goal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s about doing more, having the Alliance be able to do more. And so, again, we have been shouldering a disproportionate share of defense expenditures and, of course, those are not contributions to NATO, those are all national budgets. But we want the Alliance to be able to do more to confront the security challenges of the 21st century. And that means having all allies invest seriously in their defense. And that’s why this agreement was made during the Wales Summit, to aim to move towards 2 percent, which, of course, was set as the benchmark at that time.
Q The 2 percent goal, though — President Trump, when he met with Merkel last month, suggested that that was retroactive, and then he also said that that is money owed directly to the United States, not for the common defense. Is that a negotiating position of the President? Is that new U.S. policy? What did he mean by that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, of course, national defense budgets we know are not owed to NATO. There is a NATO common fund, and allies pay into that in a cost-sharing formula that’s calculated based on their gross national income. And that’s set. The United States’ contribution is capped at 22 percent.
But separate from that are the national defense budgets and, of course, those are not owed to NATO. This commitment was not retroactive. But the President was probably making a broader point here that, for many, many years, Germany — not only Germany, but many other allies have been chronically underinvesting in their defense. And so, again, we need to start to right this curve. And in 2015 and 2016, we saw, for the first time, the collective decline in NATO allies’ national defense budgets was arrested, and it started to peak back up.
So again, we’re on the right trajectory. And we refer back to the Wales pledge from 2014, of course, which gets allies to aim to move towards 2 percent by 2024.
Q Two specific questions about two different parts of the world. First, the Balkans — Montenegro’s membership, that’s been greenlighted by the White House. Can you give us some idea of the thinking there and the timing of that? Because it seems rather odd to announce that just before the difficult meetings with Secretary Tillerson in Moscow.
And the second question on a very different part of the world — Afghanistan. As you know, General Nicholson is asking for new troops there. He heads a NATO command — Resolute Support. What is — that, I assume, will come up in the discussions today. What’s the current thinking on the extra troops in Afghanistan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’ll answer the Montenegro question, and then I’ll turn to my colleague on Afghanistan.
So Montenegro’s accession will strengthen NATO and U.S. security by bringing a capable and committed partner in the alliance. Montenegrin troops have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan with U.S. and allied troops for a decade already. Montenegro now spends 1.7 percent of its GDP in defense — a higher proportion than all but six other NATO allies. They’ve demonstrated political will and courage in implementing important military and rule of law reforms, setting an example for other NATO aspirants.
Montenegro’s accession will also increase stability and security in the Western Balkans. After meeting rigorous standards to join the Alliance, Montenegro’s accession will make clear that no third country has a veto over a country’s sovereign decision to join NATO. So the door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remains open.
And I would also just like to say that we are very concerned about Russian interference in the October elections in Montenegro, including credible reports of Russian support for an attempted election day attack on the government. The United States supports the efforts of the Montenegrin authorities to investigate this case in accordance with Montenegrin law. And we refer you to the government of Montenegro for any further commentary on that.
Q If I could follow up on that before you move on the Afghanistan. You could have read that statement after this difficult meeting underway right now in Moscow. It clearly was a decision to announce this just before the Secretary of State went there. Why?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to comment on the specific timing of that. Of course, the Senate’s vote was on March 28th, and there was a certain procedure for the protocols to get here to the White House, et cetera. And we need to take certain steps to make sure that the instrument of ratification is deposited at the State Department in time for the leaders meeting in May. But I’m not going to comment on any specific timing.
So, on Afghanistan.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So on Afghanistan, we are undergoing a strategy review for our plans in Afghanistan in the future. We’ll be obviously consulting with General Nicholson, both in his role as commander of Resolute Support, but also as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And we’ll definitely be working with NATO allies in advance of any decisions being made on troop levels in Afghanistan to make sure that those decisions are fully consulted and that allies are on board with our strategy going forward.
Q And a quick follow-up: What’s the time frame of this review? Do you have an idea of when —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re hoping to get it done as soon as we can. Obviously there are processes within NATO in terms of force generation that need a quicker answer rather than later, but we’re not going to comment on a specific timeline. It’s based on when the President makes a decision.
Q Has Russia’s behavior in Syria changed the President’s thinking about the importance of NATO? The events of the last couple of weeks — has that shifted the President’s calculation on how important NATO is?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, so I can’t comment on what specifically is in the President’s mind right now, but he has been very firm that he is 100 percent committed to NATO. Again, I think that position remains unchanged, and probably was reinforced by, again, everything that Russia is doing. But I can’t speak specifically to his current thinking.
Q Thank you. You said the door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community remains open. Does that mean that the President would be open to more countries joining NATO? And is that something that will be discussed, further expansion of the Alliance?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, again, I won’t comment on whether that topic will be discussed. And there’s no current plans for further enlargement, so I can’t speculate on that discussion in the future. But again, the bringing in of Montenegro into the Alliance reaffirms the principle that the door is open.
Q Despite Syria not being a member of NATO, do you anticipate at the joint press conference there’s going to be extensive conversation about some things NATO members could do to help civilians in Syria? Obviously, there’s been conversations of no-fly zones and also assisting around the borders of Syria.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t comment on that.
Q Obviously, Montenegro is a sore spot for Russia. And given all the other things, to what extent is the administration concerned that this move will just exacerbate or increase the tensions with Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The specific move of taking in Montenegro?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know that I have a specific response on that. Again, we saw what Russia did — and I mentioned previously our concern about the reports of Russian interference in the election in Montenegro in October and credible reports of Russian support for an attempted election day attack. But again, I can’t comment on that.
Q And just a follow-up, a broader question. NATO, the United States, and Russia — is there a concern that we’re moving to a posture that’s closer to the Cold War than we’ve been in the last 30 years or so?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would refer you to Secretary Mattis’s comments yesterday, again, that we don’t want escalation. And, of course, Secretary Tillerson is in Moscow today, and obviously we understand that we need dialogue with Russia — that’s very important. But we need to explore with them what areas we could concretely cooperate on, and it’s important for Russia to show its seriousness about cooperating with us, and again, reintegrating into the rules-based order.
Q Thank you. On what you just mentioned, the Russian support for an election day attack on the government of Montenegro — what exactly does that mean, an election day attack on the government? And from what you know, is it similar in its tactics and means to what the Russian government might have done here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I would refer you back to the Montenegrin government for the up-to-date commentary on their investigation, which, of course, we completely support. But in regards to Montenegro, the credible reports we had were in reference to a violent election day attack, obviously very different than what we were looking at here and of much greater concern.
Q Because the Wales pledge is a percentage of GDP, a contraction in the economies of any of the NATO countries would also get them closer to the 2 percent level. So what is the President going to ask for in terms of net new dollars that these countries would be contributing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, we don’t want any economies of NATO members to contract. That would be bad. We saw that happen in Greece, and that’s how they got to 2 percent. We obviously don’t wish that on anyone. But I’ll let my colleague just comment on the net dollars.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: NATO has a regular five-year cycle called the NATO Defense Planning Process, which takes a look at all the things that the collective governments want NATO to do in terms of operations and other activities. And it looks at very mathematically and very formulaically what capabilities are needed to reach NATO’s level of ambition; then looks at all the military inventories of the NATO allies to determine what allies already have; and then looks at a gap analysis of what allies don’t have that’s needed and then apportions that out amongst the 28 allies.
So every ally will be assigned a certain number of capability targets that they need to invest in moving forward. We would encourage allies to focus on investing in those capabilities, first and foremost.
Q The Secretary General is on record saying that while defense spending is important, development spending is also important. Are you all expecting any sort of pushback from Stoltenberg on the President’s budget in terms of foreign aid?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t comment on what specifically the Secretary General will say. But, again, I expect there to be a discussion certainly of defense spending, and this is probably going to be an element of it, as well — how we think about security.
Q How will the President defend his proposed cuts in foreign —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t comment on that.
Q To follow up, a kind of overarching question, the President wants to ask for all of these countries to meet their targets, but the question about what happens if they don’t is sort of still lingering out there. Is the President going to make clear what’s going to happen from the U.S. perspective if these countries don’t meet their targets? Is there any consequence for not meeting the targets?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I can’t comment on any future actions or potential consequences or anything like that. But Secretary Mattis made clear when he was at the NATO defense ministerial in February that we’re hoping to have all allies draft and deliver a plan by the end of the year on how they plan to meet the Wales investment pledge. And again, as he said, if we’re in the same place by the end of the year that we are now, that’s not going to be a great thing. So, again, we’re hoping to work with NATO allies in a constructive manner within the terms and the confines of reality to really make progress on this defense investment pledge.
Q So just a quick follow-up. The credible report of plans for a violent attack, that comes from the Montenegran government? Or is that intelligence that — without getting into details, is that something that we have, that the U.S. government has?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I would refer you back to the Montenegran government for more information on that.
Q So last month, General Scaparrotti talked about a disinformation campaign in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, and it seemed like that was something that he was looking to coordinate better with European allies. Is that something that would fall under NATO’s cyber command, and is there any plan to allocate more resources to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I would say, first and foremost, NATO doesn’t have a cyber command. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, they recognized cyber as an operational domain, and so they’re continuing to look at how cyber can integrate into NATO’s activities across the board.
On General Scaparrotti’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, we are concerned about Russian malign influences across Europe, and we’re taking steps both bilaterally with our allies and partners in Europe, and also talking about this in NATO, as well.
Q Will that be part of the discussion of the delegation today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It might come up. It’s not something that we’re planning on coming up. I don’t think so, no.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d like to thank everyone for being here. Thank you for your time. And you will receive the one-pager after this. Remember, it’s embargoed until 10:30 a.m. Thanks.
9:48 A.M. EDT