AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump has been meeting at the White House today with the secretary general of NATO. On the campaign trail, Trump questioned the modern-day relevance of the military alliance between Western powers. It was, after all, formed almost 70 years ago in response to the former Soviet Union. But White House officials say in today's meeting, the president planned to take a different tone, reaffirming the U.S.'s ironclad commitment to NATO.
Now for more, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House. And Scott, officials say that the president is now firmly committed to NATO, but he does have some reservations, right? What are they?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Money, Audie. Trump often describes the U.S. as being taken advantage of by other countries, and he puts the NATO alliance in that category. He complains a lot of other NATO countries aren't spending enough on their own defense, relying instead on the U.S. to pick up the slack.
Now, previous presidents have also warned about that although usually more quietly and diplomatically. Trump's been about as diplomatic as a debt collector. He tweeted after a recent meeting with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO and that the U.S. must be paid more. NATO countries have agreed to boost their individual defense spending to 2 percent of their respective economies by 2024. Right now only a handful of alliance members meet that target.
CORNISH: And so what's their response to this criticism from the U.S.?
HORSLEY: Well, there has been some pushback. For Germany, getting to 2 percent would mean almost doubling their defense spending. And while Merkel has pledged to get there eventually, she worries that ramping up too quickly could be wasteful. She and the NATO secretary general have also stressed that, you know, military spending's just one part of a broader picture that they think should also include spending on development and the treatment of refugees, for example.
Now, while President Trump has called for a 10 percent boost in defense spending here in the U.S. next year, he wants to slash spending on foreign aid and sharply curtail the number of refugees the U.S. takes in. So there are some lingering differences in the alliance, and some of that could be on display next month when the president makes his first foreign trip to a NATO summit in Brussels.
CORNISH: Scott, the president's warming to NATO is coming at a time when the relationship between the U.S. and specifically with Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be on the rocks. So is there some kind of connection there?
HORSLEY: Yeah, the bromance has definitely cooled. In fact Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who's in Moscow today, says U.S.-Russian relations have hit a low point. And White House officials say Russia's conduct is reinforcing Trump's support for NATO.
In an interview with the Fox Business Network, Trump complains that Putin's alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a mistake.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world.
HORSLEY: The Trump administration itself has been taking a much harder line on Assad since last week's chemical weapons attack.
CORNISH: Also, Scott, in that same Fox interview, the president seemed to rule out any large-scale U.S. military push in Syria, right?
HORSLEY: It certainly sounded that way. He said, quote, "we're not going into Syria." Now, in fact we already have hundreds of special operators there assisting local fighters in battling ISIS, but he seems to be ruling out any big deployment of ground troops. At the same time, White House Spokesman Sean Spicer says the president is open to striking Syria from a distance if Assad tries again to use chemical weapons.
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SEAN SPICER: Should they continue to use gas, especially against children and babies, all options remain on the table. But make no mistake about it. I think the president showed last Thursday night that he will use decisive, justified and proportional action to right wrongs.
HORSLEY: Now, the president is holding a news conference after his NATO meeting today, and that will be a chance for reporters to ask the president about last week's missile strike and what, if anything, comes next.
CORNISH: That's NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.
HORSLEY: Thank you.
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