President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One, Tuesday, July 10, 2018, at Andrew Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump heads to Europe to face nervous NATO leaders

Trump is traveling on a weeklong trip to Europe on a four-nation tour, with stops in Belgium, England, Scotland and Finland.

President Donald Trump departed Tuesday on a four-nation European tour that has allies fretting over the risk of damage he could do to the decades-old NATO alliance. They’re also worried about his potential embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin during a summit in Helsinki.

Besides Brussels, Trump’s trip will also take him to London, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is in turmoil over her plans for exiting the European Union.

Trump has been pressing NATO countries to fulfil their goal of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic products on defence by 2024. During his presidential campaign, he suggested he might only come to the defence of NATO nations that fulfilled their obligation. He continues to criticize NATO countries for not paying their fair share.

Speaking to reporters from the White House, Trump criticized allies failing to meet their obligations to the 69-year old trans-Atlantic mutual defence pact, saying, “Frankly it helps them a lot more than it helps us.”

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday in a message to Trump that “it is always worth knowing who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem.” Tusk recalled that the Europeans are spending more than Russia and as much as China on defence. NATO estimates that 15 members, or just over half, will meet the benchmark by 2024 based on current trends.

“Getting ready to leave for Europe. First meeting — NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning, adding: “Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!”

Related: Trudeau, NATO leaders gearing up for defence spending debate with Trump

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On Monday he’d tweeted the situation was “not fair, nor is it acceptable,” and insisted that NATO benefits Europe “far more than it does the U.S.”

He added: “NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!”

Trump, who has compared the sentiment that underpinned the Brexit vote to leave the EU to his own election, will be making his maiden presidential trip to Britain at a fraught time for May. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned within hours of each other in protest of her plan. Trump said might meet with Johnson in the UK despite his resignation.

Trump’s visit is expected to attract large protests in London and elsewhere in Britain.

Trump’s weeklong trip to Europe will continue with a stop in Scotland before ending with a sit-down in Helsinki with Putin, whose country the U.S. intelligence community has concluded interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win.

Trump told reporters he “can’t say right now” if Russian President Vladimir Putin is a friend or foe, but called him a “competitor.”

He said that of the high-stakes meetings of his trip, “Putin may be the easiest of them all.”

“I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, getting along with others is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he added.

The meeting will be closely watched to see whether Trump will rebuke or embrace Putin, who has repeatedly denied the allegations of election meddling, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

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Colvin reported from Washington. AP writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.

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Jill Colvin And Jonathan Lemire, The Associated Press

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