Accuracy in Media

It was all in the adjectives when the Washington Post reported on President Trump’s opening foray at the NATO summit in Brussels.

Below a video of Trump matter-of-factly addressing leaders without raising his voice, the Post’s Michael Birnbaum and Seung Min Kim described a seemingly different scene for their readers.

“President Trump unleashed a blistering attack Wednesday on Germany and other NATO allies, wasting no time at the outset of a week of high-stakes diplomacy to hit at Washington’s closest partners for what he said were hypocritical demands for U.S. security protection,” the Post reporters wrote.

The story recounts an exchange at a panel discussion between Trump and Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO. The two appear to be calmly trading views with Trump pointing out Americans pay to defend Germany from Russia, but Germany sends billions of euros to Russia for energy.

The reporters called it “a fiery on-camera exchange that was nearly without precedent in the history of the post-World War II alliance.”

Trump has not just urged NATO leaders to keep their promises on defense spending and paying dues to the alliance, he has “complained bitterly about Europe’s lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations were taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they were offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.”

The remarks haven’t just focused on Germany; Germany has been “a favorite target of his ire” for not meeting its NATO spending commitments and beginning construction on a second natural gas pipeline to Russia.

Trump has not just pointed out NATO allies’ failure to meet spending obligations; he has “preferred to take aim at allies. Even Stoltenberg – -a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with Trump – appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War.”

The story tries to diminish the credit Trump should get for raising the spending issue with allies by pointing out defense spending by some members increased after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The Post says Trump “demanded credit” from Stoltenberg for “forcing an increase in NATO defense budgets.” “’It was also because of your leadership,’” Stoltenberg replied.

And when it does acknowledge the progress he has made in this area, it is to point out possible problems with it.

“NATO members have agreed to a long list of efforts they believe will strengthen the alliance against Russia and other rivals, making it easier to speed military forces across Europe and toughen its counterterrorism initiatives,” Birnbaum and Kim wrote.

“But many diplomats fear Trump’s anger over defense spending will overshadow the summit. Some even worry that he might withhold his signature from an agreement that has already been approved by national security adviser John Bolton, repeating a move he made last month at the Group of Seven summit in Canada.”  

No diplomats who hold these views were identified or quoted in the story. But if Trump were to withhold support for the document, it “would send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether NATO’s most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked.”

Trump has said nothing to suggest the U.S. would not come to the defense of a NATO member under attack. He also has not talked about giving in to any demands Vladimir Putin might make when the two meet later on the trip in Helsinki.

But Birnbaum and Kim say, “NATO leaders also fear what concessions Trump could make to Putin” – again, without naming any leaders who have said this or sketched any possible concessions Trump could make.

After meeting one-on-one with Trump, Stoltenberg didn’t merely report on the meeting, he “tried to paper over the differences, telling reporters that the bottom line is that NATO is getting stronger.”

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