Critic's Notebook: In Joint Press Conference, Trump and NATO Kiss and Make Up

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President Donald Trump

Speaking with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump did a 180 and declared that the organization is "no longer obsolete."

President Donald Trump conducted a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday, and anyone watching must have tried very hard to keep his or her head from spinning. Continuing his tendency of conducting international affairs like a round of speed dating, Trump reversed many of his previous positions. Rather than the blistering attacks on the European Union delivered during his campaign, Trump was now all warm and fuzzy, declaring that NATO was “no longer obsolete.”

And his bromance with Vladimir Putin seems to be sadly on the rocks, as Trump declared that relations between the U.S. and Russia were at an “all-time low.” Of course, anyone old enough to remember being taught to “duck and cover” during the Cold War might be inclined to disagree.

Yes, the world is filled with tension and strife, but Trump is prepared to fix it. As he so eloquently put it, “By the time I’m finished it’s going to be a lot better place to live in. Because right now it’s nasty!” It was hard to tell whether he was talking about repairing international relations or renovating one of his real-estate properties. The presser at least came at a good time, after two days of Sean Spicer putting his foot in his mouth regarding the Holocaust. Or, as he so memorably put it, "Holocaust Centers."

Before taking questions, Trump delivered some prepared remarks. He said the right things, praising “our great alliance” and “enduring partnership” with NATO and, just to prove that he had some book learning, referred to Harry Truman’s signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. 

As usual, when he’s reading from a script, President Trump sounded like an ill-prepared middle-school student suddenly forced to stand up in front of his class and read his book report aloud. Tellingly, he was most animated when referring to the member nations’ “financial obligations” and declaring that they “must pay what they owe.” He returned to that theme several times, like a relative hounding you to repay that long-ago loan you assumed was a gift.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who cuts an impressive, dignified figure, stuck to his script as well. Lavishly praising the president’s efforts, he announced that NATO would increase its attempts to fight terrorism, and, in what must have been music to Trump’s ears, declared that the organization was committed to “fairer burden sharing” and would increase its “cash, capabilities and contributions.” He also announced that Montenegro had just been ratified as NATO’s newest member. So clearly we should all feel much, much safer.

Trump needs to be careful when conducting joint press conferences with foreign dignitaries, because, let’s face it, he doesn’t benefit from the comparison. His guests usually sound better speaking in their second or third languages than he does in his sole one. To say that his comments about international affairs weren't exactly nuanced is putting it mildly. Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump declared, “We had a very good bonding … I think we had a very good chemistry together.” 

Talking about his relationship with Putin, President Trump said with a sad tone, “Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.” But he quickly perked up, pointing out, “I would love to be able to get along with everybody.” Except of course, for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for all of those “dead children.”

“That’s a butcher!” Trump bellowed. And in case we missed his point, he repeated it. “That’s a butcher!”

Apparently surprised that foreign affairs were, like healthcare, more complicated than anyone, or at least he, could have guessed, the president pointed out, “It’s crazy what’s going on … so many problems.” But to reassure us, Trump announced, “I believe we are going to get rid of most of those problems.” And why shouldn’t we believe him? After all, he’s got Jared Kushner on the job.