White House, German government: No, Trump didn't hand Merkel an invoice for $374 billion in unpaid NATO dues

Denying that it happened is the wise diplomatic move given the tensions that already exist between Trump and Merkel, but c’mon — it does sound like something he’d do. It’s too easy to imagine Merkel walking into the Oval Office to find one of those giant publisher’s-clearinghouse-sized checks payable to NATO in the amount of $374 billion, with Trump holding a giant pen she was supposed to use to sign. It’d also explain why he refused to so much as make eye contact with her at their photo op afterward. You’d be pissed too if a foreign dignitary had just laughed in your face.

I can understand why Berlin would be quick to dismiss this. I’m less clear on why Washington would.

Donald Trump handed the German chancellor Angela Merkel a bill — thought to be for more than £300bn — for money her country “owed” Nato for defending it when they met last weekend, German government sources have revealed.

The bill — handed over during private talks in Washington — was described as “outrageous” by one German minister.

“The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said.

NATO countries are supposed to spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense — not specifically on NATO, as a form of “dues” or whatever, but on defense generally, a point Merkel herself has emphasized. Needless to say, not all of the United States’s massive military spending is devoted to NATO initiatives. In fact, the two-percent threshold became mandatory just a few years ago and countries have been given until 2024 to bring their defense budgets in line, which Germany reportedly is doing. (Merkel promised at her White House press conference with Trump last week that they’d be up to speed by 2024.) Supposedly, the White House got its $374 billion figure by starting in 2002, when Germany first promised to boost defense spending, and then adding each year’s shortfall below two percent (a total of $312 billion) plus another $62 billion in interest. But as I say, contra Trump’s angry tweets, there’s no money “owed” by Berlin to NATO or to the United States. If anything, its Germany’s own military that’s “owed” funding by the government after years of lowballing them according them to the NATO guidelines.

Ivo Daalder, Obama’s ambassador to NATO, responded to Trump’s tweets after his meeting with Merkel by noting that (a) no one’s forcing the U.S. to spend as much as it does on defense and (b) to the extent that the U.S. does overspend on NATO’s defense specifically, there are good strategic reasons for doing so:

Anyway, both sides are denying that Trump produced any invoice for Merkel. “The reports about the mentioned invoice or bill are wrong,” a German government spokesman told BuzzFeed this morning, while Sean Spicer reassured Business Insider that it never happened. Why the White House would be so quick to shoot this down isn’t clear, though, given how well Trump’s “pull your own weight” rhetoric plays with American populists — especially when it’s aimed at the loathed Angela Merkel, architect of Europe’s Middle East refugee influx. Maybe Trump and his team realized that the more they try to squeeze Merkel for “dues” Germany supposedly owes, the more popular they risk making her back home in an election year when they’re hoping to see her ousted. “[An] increase in defense spending is unpopular, and so is Donald Trump. By ‘ordering’ Merkel to increase spending, he will make it harder for her to sell that increase at home,” said one German expert to WaPo. “Nothing would be worse for Merkel than being seen as taking orders from Trump.

Trump has lots of levers if he wants to speed up Germany’s defense spending. He could make targeted cuts to U.S. military expenditures on NATO readiness, he could shrink the entire defense budget knowing that some of those cuts would come out of NATO’s defense, or he could withdraw from NATO entirely, all of which would make Moscow happy. His problem is that, with the possible exceptions of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, no one around him seems to be gung ho to play hardball with NATO, especially at a moment when Russia is testing the alliance over Montenegro. In lieu of an exit question, watch this exchange (at 8:00) between Jon Tester and James Mattis a few weeks ago at a defense hearing. Do you agree with Trump’s tweets that Germany owes America money, Tester asks? That’s not the way NATO works, says Mattis. We judge by capabilities, not money owed. But they’re on track to get up to speed by 2024.