Accuracy in Media

No matter how much money President Donald Trump extracts from NATO allies for their common expenses or how much he gets them to commit for their own defense, mainstream media continues to insist he is wrong on the facts and/or taking credit for changes made before he took office.

“We are not here to mock the president. But we need to update our chronicle of how he consistently misunderstands NATO financing,” wrote Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker in “Trump’s NATO parade of falsehoods and misstatements.”  

Kessler took issue with remarks President Trump has made during and since the NATO summit in which the president said NATO “was really heading in the wrong direction three years ago” and that he got NATO countries to spend more on common expenses and do more for their own defense.

“Tremendous things achieved for U.S. on my NATO trip,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 5. “Proudly for our country, no president has ever achieved so much in so little time. Without a U.S. increase, other countries have already increased by $130 billion – with $400 billion soon. Such a thing has never been done before!”

Kessler concedes Trump is correct for the most part. The U.S. has paid the largest share for the direct contributions from members that fund shared expenses – about 22 percent of total expenses. Trump negotiated the U.S. share down to 16 percent – the same level as Germany.

What makes the statement incorrect, in Kessler’s view, is that we’re not talking about much money. “But these direct payments – about $500 million a year – are basically a rounding error in the $700 billion military budget of the United States.”

NATO countries have agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Many countries had simply ignored this obligation, but in 2014, after Russia had seized Crimea, they agreed to get serious about it and reach 2 percent by 2024.

“Note the date – that was three years before Trump became president, and a year before he even announced he was running for president,” Kessler wrote. “Yet he persistently claims credit for actions that were underway before he became president – and consistently misleads about where NATO funding was headed before he became president.”

But last year, only three NATO countries were meeting their obligations. This year, nine are after Canada and some European members all announced defense spending increases at the behest of Trump. “This is unprecedented progress, and it is making NATO stronger,” said Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of the 4.6 percent hike in spending among all NATO nations in 2019.

By 2020, increases in spending by other NATO allies on their own defense will have reached $130 billion over 2016 levels.

Kessler had another explanation for Stoltenberg’s statement. “With Trump suggesting at times that he would consider withdrawing from the alliance, … Stoltenberg clearly understands that it is necessary to play to Trump’s ego. At the NATO summit, he thanked Trump for his ‘leadership on defense spending,’” Kessler wrote.

He then moved on to another point. “As for the $130 billion extra that Trump falsely claims he has collected, once again we must emphasize this is money that each country is spending on its own defense,” Kessler wrote. “It does not go into a pot for NATO’s use, though better-funding militaries might enhance NATO’s competitive edge.”  

But the quotes Kessler himself provided don’t say that.

In one, Trump says, “Over the last couple years, I had them increase by $130 billion.” In another tweet, Trump says “Without a U.S. increase, other countries have already increased by $130 billion – with $400 billion soon.” A final quote combines the two figures: “I got NATO countries to pay $530 billion a year more, and the U.S. less, and came home to a Fake News Media that mocked me.”

Most of these remarks were tweets with 280-character limits even the president must meet. He does not say the U.S. got funds, only that other countries were spending more.

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