Talking heads on MSNBC and CNN got themselves all bent out of shape following President Trump’s appearance at a breakfast kicking off the 2018 NATO Summit. Wednesday’s edition of MSNBC Live With Katy Tur presented no exception. Former TIME magazine editor and Kerry State Department official Richard Stengel complained about President Trump’s “America First” policy, describing it as “toxic nationalism.”
The fireworks began when The Washington Post’s David Ignatius warned about the danger to the “credibility of America’s commitment to defend its allies,” as a result of “the President arriving and immediately haranguing the NATO Secretary General and calling Germany the leader of Europe today, a captive of Russia.”
After reading aloud an excerpt from a piece by former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns highlighting the strong economic ties between the United States and the European Union, host Katy Tur asked Stengel:
If Donald Trump goes there and he starts angrily yelling at Germany saying that they’re beholden to Russia, et cetera, if he has this attitude…what is the risk of any of that stuff unraveling, any of the economic ties? What are we going to see for, as consequences, real life consequences now that the President’s decided to take this tact?
Stengel proceeded to give a history lesson about the formation of the E.U.: “It was formed in the aftermath of World War II, where there was a poisonous nationalism that caused two World Wars in the twentieth century that killed more than 100 million people. The EU was meant to get around and away from that toxic nationalism, right?”
Stengel then accused President Trump of bringing back “toxic nationalism”:
America first is toxic nationalism. It is to the Europeans and he’s doing the bidding of Russia, which has always wanted to unravel the European Union, unravel NATO, even in his wildest dreams, Vladimir Putin did never expect an American President to go to a NATO summit and harangue Germany publicly for being a client state of Russia.
Panelist and former Biden aide Julie Smith accused President Trump of “playing perfectly into the Putin playbook” by “beating up on the European Union and on the NATO alliance,” “questioning the utility of the alliance,” and “publicly shaming individual allies.” She also predicted that President Trump will “head off and give Putin and big bear hug in Helsinki,” referring to the President’s upcoming summit with the Russian President that will take place on Monday in Finland.
This particular segment did have a glimmer of common sense, when Smith admitted that “at the end of the day we want to ask our European allies to spend more on defense, so Trump’s right to deliver that message, that’s a message that other past Presidents have delivered countless times over the last couple of decades.”
To see the relevant transcript, click "expand."
MSNBC Live With Katy Tur
KATY TUR: Let’s go to David Ignatius, he’s a foreign columnist and Associate Editor for The Washington Post and an MSNBC Political Analyst. We also have Rick Stengel, a former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He’s also a former managing editor at Time magazine and an MSNBC Political Analyst; along with Julie Smith, a former national security adviser to Vice President Biden. She’s also a former Principal Director for European NATO policy at the Pentagon. You guys have too many former titles.
DAVID IGNATIUS: Yeah, I agree.
TUR: David, let’s start with you.
IGNATIUS: I’m not former anything. I’m just a columnist.
TUR: No, David, you’re just current everything to us. How about that? Let’s talk about the President’s very angrily going after NATO, this is his default position. We’ve seen him do it. What is the risk of unraveling this alliance? Is it a real risk and if that’s not a risk, what’s all the hubbub about it other than his bad acting?
IGNATIUS: I think your correspondent Geoff was right in saying that it’s unlikely that the U.S. would formally pull out of NATO. The problem is that NATO is an alliance that’s absolutely predicated on the credibility of America’s commitment to defend its European allies. That’s really what NATO’s all about; the idea that if an aggressive Russia, in the old days, Soviet Union, attacked our European NATO allies, the United States would come to their assistance, even in the most extreme case at the risk of nuclear war. That was our extended deterrent offered to Europe, offered to our NATO partners. Once people begin to doubt that an American President is committed to Europe, to Europe’s security, it almost doesn’t matter whether people go to NATO meetings and the fancy headquarters if the credibility has been eroded and I think you have to say after the show this morning at breakfast with the President arriving and immediately haranguing the NATO Secretary General and calling Germany, the leader of Europe today, a captive of Russia, you’d have to say that the credibility of that commitment, whatever else happens, has been badly damaged.
TUR: Ian Bremmer yesterday, when I was talking to him, Rick, said that the NATO countries need us more than we need them. Do you think that that is a correct assessment?
RICHARD STENGEL: You know, the…NATO is an alliance, it’s not like a club and this two percent figure is what you spend…two percent of your GDP is what you spend on defense. That money doesn’t go to NATO itself. There is…very little money that goes centralized to NATO. Even as Trump said, if people doubled there contribution to four percent, if Croatia doubled their contribution to four percent, they could buy one more M-16 rifle. It doesn’t really matter. And so do we…do they need us more than we need them? We need each other together. It is an alliance that was established to support basically these post-war western organizations that the United States is the ballast and the foundation of. We need each other.
TUR: Well, here’s what Nick Burns wrote. Let’s read this. “The European Union is our country’s largest trade partner and its largest investor. The U.S. and the European Union are the two world’s, the world’s two largest economies, and can steer global trade to their advantage if they stick together. More than four million Americans work for European companies in the U.S. Forty-five of the 50 states export more to Europe than to China. So if Donald Trump goes there and he starts angrily yelling at Germany saying that they’re beholden to Russia, et cetera, if he has this attitude, what is the, what is the risk of any of that stuff unraveling, any of the economic ties? What are we going to see for, as consequences, real life consequences now that the President’s decided to take this tact?
STENGEL: There are consequences. I mean, let’s also go back to why the European Union itself was formed. It was formed in the aftermath of World War II, where there was a poisonous nationalism that caused two World Wars in the twentieth century that killed more than 100 million people. The EU was meant to get around and away from that toxic nationalism, right? But who’s bringing it back? Donald Trump. America first is toxic nationalism. It is to the Europeans and he’s doing the bidding of Russia, which has always wanted to unravel the European Union, unravel NATO, even in his wildest dreams, Vladimir Putin did never expect an American President to go to a NATO summit and harangue Germany publicly for being a client state of Russia.
TUR: Well let’s get to that big question we have, Julie. I mean, if Donald Trump antagonizes NATO, who benefits more, America or Russia? Is there an argument to be made that if everybody starts spending more, that benefits America more, we look stronger, I don’t know, or is it more of the argument that if NATO is antagonized, if NATO is undercut as David was just pointing out, if the authority of that organization doesn’t stand in the way that it once was, does it help Russia more and if so, how exactly does it help Russia more? What does Russia want out of this?
JULIE SMITH: Well, at the end of the day, we want to ask our European allies to spend more on defense, so Trump’s right to deliver that message, that’s a message that other past Presidents have delivered countless times over the last couple of decades but where he goes wrong is he’s publicly dividing the alliance, he’s questioning the utility of the alliance, he’s beating up on the European Union and on the NATO alliance, he’s publicly shaming individual allies and why does that benefit Russia? Russia wants us divided. Russia does not want a united alliance that’s focused on projecting resolve and enhancing their deterrence against Russian aggression. The more that we’re divided, the more that Putin can sit back, relax and smile. This is exactly what he’s hoped for. It’s what Putin has been working towards for many years to see how much he can divide us, the United States, from Europe and so what Trump is doing right now is he’s playing perfectly into the Putin playbook. I mean, honestly, Putin couldn’t ask for it any better and then to leave the NATO summit probably in disrepair, I suspect tomorrow will not go particularly well, and then to head off and give Putin and big bear hug in Helsinki really is a win for Putin beyond belief. I’m sure Putin himself can’t even believe how lucky he is in that regard.
TUR: Well, David, expand on that though. If this is what Putin wants, to divide NATO countries, what does he want to do after that?
IGNATIUS: I think Putin came to power feeling an existential threat. Let’s be honest. Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst event in modern history and he feels that his country, Russia, is encircled by this military alliance, by NATO and that NATO keeps expanding, adding new countries, so from Putin’s standpoint, NATO poses a threat and as Julie and Richard both said, this is one that he has been determined to undermine using every tool of covert action. We’re only now understanding all of the things that Russia did starting in 2014 on the internet but long before that using other measures of covert action to weaken NATO, to divide NATO internally, to pit the countries against each other, to encourage opposition movements. It’s all coming to fruition and there is a basic reason why Putin wants to do it. He feels this alliance threatens him. He wants to weaken it and somehow in President Donald Trump he has an American President who goes at NATO, hammer and tongs, and in a sense does Putin’s work for him.
TUR: Does he want to reform the USSR?
STENGEL: Yes. He wants to put it back…he wants to put it back together. In fact, the interview I did with him in 2007 was the one David cites, where he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dissolution of the USSR. By the way, what he wants, to piggyback on what David said, is a sphere of influence world like the 19th century, where countries can do whatever they want in their sphere of influence and no one else can met with them. That is his goal of destroying NATO and the EU.
TUR: And what does that mean if he’s able to do that for us, Julie?
SMITH: What it means for us is we’re in a weaker position. We’re not united with our European allies, we’re not able to showcase any resolve, we won’t be able to showcase new initiatives to ensure that our friends in Central and Eastern Europe are protected and ultimately, America’s weaker without its European allies. NATO’s the most successful military alliance in history, it benefits the United States.
They were the ones; NATO declared Article 5 on 9/11. They came to our aid on 9/11. They were there in Afghanistan with us and to assume that we get nothing out of this alliance really is…is unimaginable for many of us because NATO has been the bedrock of U.S. Foreign policy for so many years since it was created some 70 years ago.
TUR: Wow, guys, thanks for going over this with us. David Ignatius, Richard Stengel, and Julie Smith, appreciate it.