When President Donald Trump addressed NATO leaders during his debut overseas trip little more than a week ago, he surprised and disappointed European allies who hoped—and expected—he would use his speech to explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to mutual defense of the alliance’s members, a one-for-all, all-for-one provision that looks increasingly urgent as Eastern European members worry about the threat from a resurgent Russia on their borders.
That part of the Trump visit is known.
What’s not is that the president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.
It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.
“They had the right speech and it was cleared through McMaster,” said a source briefed by National Security Council officials in the immediate aftermath of the NATO meeting. “As late as that same morning, it was the right one.”
Added a senior White House official, “There was a fully coordinated other speech everybody else had worked on”—and it wasn’t the one Trump gave. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” said a third source of the Trump national security officials on hand for the ceremony. “It was only upon delivery.”
The president appears to have deleted it himself, according to one version making the rounds inside the government, reflecting his personal skepticism about NATO and insistence on lecturing NATO allies about spending more on defense rather than offering reassurances of any sort; another version relayed to others by several White House aides is that Trump’s nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy aide Stephen Miller played a role in the deletion. (According to NSC spokesman Michael Anton, who did not dispute this account, “The president attended the summit to show his support for the NATO alliance, including Article 5. His continued effort to secure greater defense commitments from other nations is making our alliance stronger.”)
Either way, the episode suggests that what has been portrayed—correctly—as a major rift within the 70-year-old Atlantic alliance is also a significant moment of rupture inside the Trump administration, with the president withholding crucial information from his top national security officials—and then embarrassing them by forcing them to go out in public with awkward, unconvincing, after-the-fact claims that the speech really did amount to a commitment they knew it did not make.
The frantic, last-minute maneuvering over the speech, I’m told, included “MM&T,” as some now refer to the trio of Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson, lobbying in the days leading up to it to get a copy of the president’s planned remarks and then pushing hard once they obtained the draft to get the Article 5 language in it, only to see it removed again. All of which further confirms a level of White House dysfunction that veterans of both parties I’ve talked with in recent months say is beyond anything they can recall.
And it suggests Trump’s impulsive instincts on foreign policy are not necessarily going to be contained by the team of experienced leaders he’s hired for Defense, the NSC and State. “We’re all seeing the fallout from it—and all the fallout was anticipated,” the White House official told me.
They may be the “adults in the room,” as the saying going around Washington these past few months had it. But Trump—and the NATO case shows this all too clearly—isn’t in the room with them.
No one would find this episode more disturbing than Strobe Talbott, the Washington wise man who as much as anyone could be considered an architect of the modern NATO. As Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Talbott oversaw the successful push to redefine the alliance for the post-Cold War, expanding to the same countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics now so urgently looking for American reaffirmation of the commitment Clinton and Talbott gave them in the 1990s.
I spoke with Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution and a Russia watcher going back to the 1960s when he translated Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs as a Rhodes Scholar classmate of Clinton’s, for this week’s Global Politico podcast, and he warned at length about the consequences of Trump’s seeming disregard for NATO at the same time he’s touted his affinity with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump’s rebuff of America’s European allies on his recent trip—combined with his decision last week to withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement—is not merely some rhetorical lapse, Talbott argued, but one with real consequences.
“The failure to say something has had a very dangerous and damaging effect on the most successful military alliance in history,” Talbott told me. Given that all of Trump’s top officials like McMaster and Mattis had spent months promising that the president didn’t really mean it when he called NATO “obsolete” and insisting the Article 5 commitment from the U.S. was unshakable, Talbott noted, “all we needed was for the commander in chief to say it, and he didn’t say it”—an omission that “from that day forward … [means] the Atlantic community was less safe, and less together.”
Compared with his volatile management style and struggles on domestic policy, some have argued in recent months that Trump’s foreign policy is a relative outpost of competence, with strong hands like McMaster and Mattis on board to avoid major failures. But Talbott and others with whom I’ve spoken since Trump’s trip believe the NATO incident really overturns that assumption. It’s destroyed the credibility of Trump’s advisers when they offer reassurances for allies to discount the president’s inflammatory rhetoric—and cast into doubt the kind of certainties necessary for an uncertain world to function.
“I had a very high-placed Asian official from a major ally in Asia not long ago, where you’re sitting, who shook his head with sorrow, and said, ‘Washington, D.C. is now the epicenter of instability in the world,’” Talbott recounted. “What it means is something that our friends and allies around the world have taken for granted for 70 years is no longer something that they can take for granted.”
And in fact, we’re already seeing the ripple effects from the Trump NATO speech-that-wasn’t—and what several of the sources told me was an even worse rift with the allies during the private dinner that followed. In the days immediately after, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron went public with unusually frank criticisms. Meantime, Trump’s rebuffed national security leaders have been left in increasingly awkward positions. “Are these people going to steer Trump,” one former senior U.S. official asked, “or are they simply going to be made enablers?”
McMaster, a widely respected three-star general before he took the job, had been presumed by the Trump-wary foreign policy establishment to be a smart pick because of his track record of being unafraid to speak truth to power (and a book on Vietnam in which he specifically argued that LBJ’s generals had failed by not doing so). But he’s now being pilloried by some early supporters for his very public efforts to spin Trump’s trip as a success—and claim the president supported the Article 5 clause he never explicitly mentioned.
Mattis, meanwhile, has taken a different route.
Not only has the defense secretary, a former top general at NATO, not joined in the administration’s spinning, he set Twitter abuzz over the weekend with an appearance at an Asian security forum in Singapore. In his speech, he praised the international institutions and alliances sustained by American leadership, seeking to reassure allies once again that the U.S. was not really pulling back from the world despite Trump’s “America First” rhetoric.
But when asked about Trump moves like withdrawing from the Paris accord and whether they meant America was abandoning the very global order that Mattis was busy touting, the secretary responded with an allusion to Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the dysfunctions of democracy.
“To quote a British observer of us from some years back, bear with us,” Mattis told the questioner. “Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
“So,” he added: “we will still be there, and we will be there with you.”
The audience chuckled, one attendee told me, because “it was an elegant way out of an awkward question.”
But the awkward question remains: Should we believe James Mattis, or Donald Trump?