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Analysis: Trump's questionable claims of success

Last Updated Jul 13, 2018 at 5:40 am PDT

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump are greeted after disembarking from Air Force One as they arrive at London Stansted Airport in Stansted, England, Thursday, July 12, 2018. Trump is making his first trip to Britain as president after a tense summit with NATO leaders in Brussels and on the heels of ruptures in British Prime Minister Theresa May's government because of the crisis over Britain's exit from the European Union. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

BRUSSELS – Declaring victory over freeloading partners, President Donald Trump claimed he had secured significant new concessions from NATO member nations on military spending after days of public haranguing. But even before Air Force One completed its 50-minute flight across the English Channel to the next stop on his European tour, Trump’s claims of accomplishment were challenged by the same allies he claimed had caved.

Trump’s head-spinning 28 hours at the NATO summit in Brussels before visiting Britain reaffirmed a familiar pattern for the salesman-turned-president, who left a chaotic trail behind and whose self-proclaimed accomplishments abroad proved once again to be more show than substance. In the space of eight hours, Trump had moved from doubting the utility of the mutual defence alliance and provoking an extraordinary emergency session of its members to declaring the pact stronger than ever.

It’s a playbook Trump has followed before: Trump claimed world-altering success following last month’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, when he stated that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat” after their historic summit in Singapore. And in May, he took a victory lap on a supposed trade deal with China, only to see it morph into the beginnings of a trade war.

After days of calling on NATO members to increase their defence spending to at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product, accusing Germany of being “totally controlled” by Russia and pondering “what good is NATO?” Trump offered Thursday that “people have stepped up today like they’ve never stepped up before.”

“I’ve taken over a lot of bad hands and I’m fixing each one of them, and I’m fixing them well,” Trump said during a hastily called press conference Thursday. “What they’re doing is spending at a much faster clip. They’re going up to the 2 per cent level.”

But statements from NATO allies suggested there was little cause for Trump’s self-congratulation.

French President Emmanuel Macron denied there were any new spending commitments.

He said: “There is a communique that was published yesterday. It’s very detailed. It confirms the goal of 2 per cent by 2024. That’s all.”

That 2024 goal had been set in 2014.

Instead of new pledges, NATO members appeared to try to placate Trump by giving him a share of the credit for progress that had already been under way.

“I made clear that we know that we have to do more and that we have been doing so for quite a while,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “That turning point has long been initiated.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg demurred when asked what Trump had accomplished, saying the allies “agree that we need to deliver on our commitments.”

He did allow, though, that there was “a new sense of urgency” about increasing military spending.

Trump’s boasts of achievement have come under question before.

North Korea has yet to take substantial steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, and on Thursday appeared to backtrack on a pledge to repatriate the remains of American war dead — a move that Trump weeks ago said the North had already undertaken. A letter from Kim that Trump tweeted out Thursday heralded the “start of a meaningful journey” between the two nations, but made no mention of denuclearization.

Trump’s tweet: “A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made!”

The display at NATO shows how Trump, who views himself as a world-class negotiator, likes to play both good cop and bad cop himself. On Wednesday, he showed up at a breakfast meeting with Stoltenberg steaming mad, charmed allies at a black-tie dinner that evening, and sent them reeling Thursday morning, only to praise their efforts hours later.

That mercurial side of Trump is less likely to be experienced Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump has been anticipating a sit-down for weeks.

The president set himself a low bar for what he’ll achieve in Moscow, telling reporters: “I think we go into that meeting looking for not so much.” He said it could lead to “something very productive — and maybe it’s not.”

His diplomatic team argues the meeting in itself should be seen as notable achievement, so look for more grand proclamations next week.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters she’s comfortable with the Trump-Putin summit, but it “depends very much on outcomes.”

“These two people are very different, very interestingly different,” she said. “Hopefully nothing bad happens.”

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Miller reported from Washington.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller, Lemire and Colvin cover the White House for The Associated Press.

An AP News Analysis