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On NATO’s 70th Birthday, Trump Takes Credit for Increased Burden Sharing in Defense Spending

" Trump said of improved burden-sharing among the pact's 29 independent member countries, but stated that "Germany, honestly, is not paying their fair share."

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

Cindy Saine at the State Department and Valeria Jegisman of VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

U.S. President Donald Trump is warming toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), praising the alliance and its leader Tuesday during meetings with its secretary-general.

“Tremendous progress has been made,” Trump said of improved burden-sharing among the pact’s 29 independent member countries, but stated that “Germany, honestly, is not paying their fair share.”

Trump reiterated his concern that while America spends a lot of money to protect Europe, “they’re taking advantage of us on trade.”

Trump, alongside Jens Stoltenberg in front of the Oval Office fireplace, praised him for an excellent job running NATO.

“We get along really well,” Trump said of the former Norwegian prime minister.

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U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a reporter’s question while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

The president took credit for the turnaround of the alliance he had previously referred to as obsolete.

“As you know when I came it wasn’t so good, and now, they’re catching up” to the goal of members spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

“But I think it should be higher,” added Trump.

Stoltenberg thanked the president for his “strong leadership on burden sharing,” adding, “we have stepped up in our joint fight against terrorism and we are investing more.”

Trump was asked by a reporter about Russia, the Cold War nemesis that led to the alliance’s creation.

“I hope that it’s not going to be a security threat. I think we’ll get along with Russia,” replied Trump, whose 2016 presidential campaign was the target of a two-year investigation by a special counsel for alleged ties to Moscow.

In a subsequent expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room, Stoltenberg, sitting across from Trump, stated that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, noting “NATO allies have supported the U.S. position on that strongly.”

Defense spending

Since becoming president in 2017, Trump’s threats to “do his own thing” if NATO states did not meet defense spending targets plunged the organization into crisis.

Only seven of the 29 member states reached the GDP spending commitment in 2018, but that is considered an improvement from previous years.

During Tuesday’s expanded bilateral meeting, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton made note of the increased defense spending by NATO members.

“Now we have the common challenge of making sure it’s spent efficiently,” said Bolton.

70th anniversary

NATO is officially marking its 70th anniversary in Washington this week. But there is a bit less pomp than might have been expected as alliance partners downgraded the celebration to a meeting of foreign ministers to avert the risk of further verbal attacks from the U.S. president.

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

NATO membership “remains an integral part of U.S. security strategy,” a senior State Department official reassured reporters a few hours prior to Trump’s meeting with Stoltenberg.

As foreign ministers of NATO gather in Washington, foreign policy analysts are emphasizing it is one of the most successful military alliances in history and still relevant, pointing to its ability to adapt in dealing with a resurgent Russia, managing the crisis on the south of NATO’s flank, and new threats such as cybersecurity.

“NATO is adapting and allies are spending more on defense. And I think this administration is understanding more and more how critical NATO is to some of the challenges that it faces, including China,” Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council tells VOA. “So, in many ways, NATO is far from obsolete.”

Value of alliance

Trump’s comments, political upheaval in Europe — including the impending British exit from the European Union — and calls by some to kick Turkey out of NATO, can leave the impression, however, that the defense alliance is fracturing.

“I don’t think that’s the case. The alliance is strong,” Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik tells VOA, pointing to increased political dialogues and military exercises among NATO’s members, as well as more U.S. military equipment and troops being brought to Europe.

“You’re not giving the money to somebody else. You’re not putting it into a NATO budget somewhere, you’re spending it on yourselves,” said McCain Institute Director Kurt Volker, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to NATO. “But it is a demonstration of your commitment to your own security, which then gives NATO the confidence that this is a country that we can help defend as well, because they are committed to defense of their own territory.”

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FILE – Kurt Volker, then-United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 28, 2017. VOA

Others agree that defense spending is important, but they say the alliance is fundamentally about the members’ ability to trust each other, and Trump has damaged that trust.

“When an American president questions the value of the alliance, our enemies in Moscow and Beijing are now questioning whether or not NATO would come to the defense of some smaller NATO nations that the president has criticized as maybe not worthy of NATO’s defense,” said Simakovsky, a former Europe/NATO chief of staff in the policy office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. “But I don’t think at this summit the administration is going to be announcing any departure of the United States.”

Brooking Institution’s Robert Kagan is expressing concern that Trump’s attitude toward the European Union and expressed hostility toward the defense alliance could bring more chaos to the continent.

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“Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?” wrote Kagan in an upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. (VOA)

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Trump Administration to Revoke California’s Authority to Set Auto Mileage Standards

The Trump administration is poised to revoke California's authority to set auto mileage standards, asserting

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FILE - Automobile traffic flows over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. California's long struggles with smog mean the state has been setting its own mileage standards since before the 1970 Clean Air Act was written. VOA

The Trump administration is poised to revoke California’s authority to set auto mileage standards, asserting that only the federal government has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy.

Conservative and free-market groups have been asked to attend a formal announcement of the rollback set for Wednesday afternoon at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington.

Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Tuesday that her group was among those invited to the event featuring EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The move comes after the Justice Department recently opened an antitrust investigation into a deal between California and four automakers for tougher pollution and related mileage requirements than those sought by President Donald Trump. Trump also has sought to relax Obama-era federal mileage standards nationwide, weakening a key effort by his Democratic predecessor to slow climate change.

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at a news conference in Washington, Sept. 12, 2019. VOA

Top California officials and environmental groups pledged legal action to stop the rollback.

The White House declined to comment Tuesday, referring questions to EPA. EPA’s press office did not respond to a phone message and email seeking comment.

But EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the National Automobile Dealers Association on Tuesday that the Trump administration would move “in the very near future” to take steps toward establishing one nationwide set of fuel-economy standards.

“We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” he said, adding that higher fuel economy standards would hurt consumers by increasing the average sticker price of new cars and requiring automakers to produce more electric vehicles.

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Word of the pending announcement came as Trump traveled to California on Tuesday for an overnight trip that includes GOP fundraising events near San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

California’s authority to set its own, tougher emissions standards goes back to a waiver issued by Congress during passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The state has long pushed automakers to adopt more fuel-efficient passenger vehicles that emit less pollution. A dozen states and the District of Columbia also follow California’s fuel economy standards.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Tuesday that the Trump administration’s action will hurt both U.S. automakers and American families. He said California would fight the administration in federal court.

“You have no basis and no authority to pull this waiver,” Becerra, a Democrat, said in a statement, referring to Trump. “We’re ready to fight for a future that you seem unable to comprehend.”

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FILE – California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses a news conference in Sacramento, July 23, 2019. VOA

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the White House “has abdicated its responsibility to the rest of the world on cutting emissions and fighting global warming.”

“California won’t ever wait for permission from Washington to protect the health and safety of children and families,” said Newsom, a Democrat.

The deal struck in July between California and four of the world’s largest automakers — Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen — bypassed the Trump administration’s plan to freeze emissions and fuel economy standards adopted under Obama at 2021 levels.

The four automakers agreed with California to reduce emissions by 3.7% per year starting with the 2022 model year, through 2026. That compares with 4.7% yearly reductions through 2025 under the Obama standards. Emissions standards are closely linked with fuel economy requirements because vehicles pollute less if they burn fewer gallons of fuel.

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The U.S. transportation sector is the nation’s biggest single source of planet-warming greenhouse gasses.

Wheeler said Tuesday: “California will be able to keep in place and enforce programs to address smog and other forms of air pollution caused by motor vehicles.” But fuel economy has been one of the key regulatory tools the state has used to reduce harmful emissions.

Environmentalists condemned the Trump administration’s expected announcement, which comes as gasoline prices have crept higher following a weekend drone attack that hobbled Saudi Arabian oil output.

“Everyone wins when we adopt strong clean car standards as our public policy,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund. “Strong clean car standards give us healthier air to breathe, help protect us from the urgent threat of climate change and save Americans hundreds of dollars a year in gas expenses.” (VOA)