RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump has long maintained that NATO allies don't pay their fair share to keep the defense alliance going, but he is using the NATO summit in Brussels today to say it to their face. President Trump didn't even finish his breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this morning before he started laying into NATO partners. And then he singled out Germany in particular with a new claim, alleging that Germany is, quote, "totally controlled by Russia."
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia because it's getting so much of its energy from Russia.
MARTIN: Later in the morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel fired back, saying Germany makes its decisions independently. And after that heated exchange, the two leaders - Merkel and Trump - actually met one-on-one for a private meeting. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about all this.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So first off, what is Trump trying to get at with this criticism of Germany that somehow seems like it's coming out of the blue?
HORSLEY: This is a novel line of attack for the - President Trump, and I should just say, this was a bruising start to a NATO summit that was supposed to be about the strength and unity of the alliance.
HORSLEY: But as you say, the president has long complained that NATO allies are not spending enough on their own defense. And Germany is sort of Exhibit A in that it's the biggest economy in Europe and it spends just over 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. By 2024, all the NATO partners are supposed to be spending 2 percent, and the president wants them to get to that target a lot faster. Today, he had this new argument that because Germany is somewhat dependent on Russia for its energy supplies - in particular, this natural gas deal that they struck three years ago - that somehow, that makes Germany captive to Vladimir Putin and Moscow. Chancellor Merkel bristled at this idea. She grew up in the former East Germany under then-Soviet domination. She wasn't about to take that kind of attack lying down.
MARTIN: Right. She's like, I know what it feels like to feel...
MARTIN: ...Russian oppression, so to speak. So then these two leaders meet in this one-on-one - had to be awkward. Do we know what came out of that meeting?
HORSLEY: We don't know what the two leaders said to one another behind closed doors, but in public, when they did their photo op for the news media, it was generally polite. I would say it was a sort of a thin grin from the German chancellor, but President Trump was all smiles. And we've seen this before, where he will attack somebody at a distance and then sort of melt when he's sitting side by side with that person. Here's what he had to say about his talks with Chancellor Merkel.
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TRUMP: We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor. We have a tremendous relationship with Germany.
HORSLEY: He - so lots of complaints when he's meeting with the NATO secretary-general, but face-to-face with Angela Merkel, it's sort of all smiles from the president.
MARTIN: And it makes you wonder, does she feel the same way?
HORSLEY: She did not say anything about having a great relationship with the president. What she did say was, it's important for us to have exchanges like this because we are partners; we are good partners, and we wish to continue to cooperate in the future.
MARTIN: The - notably, Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, had his own reply to all these criticisms from Trump. He said this, which stood out to me - quote, "we are not prisoners, neither of Russia nor of the United States. We are one of the guarantors of the free world, and that will stay that way."
HORSLEY: Once upon a time, the United States was a guarantor of the free world. And obviously, all of this raises questions about America's commitment to that sort of liberal democratic order that it has fostered for seven decades.
MARTIN: So, I mean, more broadly speaking, you've got President Trump laying into Germany over this - whatever - their dependence on Russia and this particular pipeline, but then more broadly, he is lambasting all NATO allies over these - their inability - well, he says their inability to live up to their financial obligations. Where does this leave the state of the alliance at this point?
HORSLEY: Well, I think it's a little bit fragile. That's the question. Is - you know, is the president really genuinely committed to the defense of its NATO allies? And Stoltenberg, the secretary-general, sort of pushed back against this argument, that this is all a dead-weight loss for American taxpayers. He said, look; America's spending on the defense of Europe is good for Europe, but it's good for the United States, too.
MARTIN: Meanwhile, President Trump gets ready for his summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday.
HORSLEY: That's right.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks so much.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.