WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump gave NATO another strong endorsement but told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Germany and other allies must do more to contribute to the alliance’s collective defense.
Trump made the comments during a joint March 17 news conference after holding his first meetings with the German leader since he took office in January.
During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on their militaries, under their obligations to the alliance. He also cast doubt on whether the United States remained committed to the alliance’s central provision -- that an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all.
Those comments rattled U.S. allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Union dominated throughout the Cold War.
Since his inauguration, however, Trump has publicly stressed the U.S. commitment to the alliance, while also demanding that members "pay their fair share."
"Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States," Trump said. "These nations must pay what they owe."
Merkel said that for Germany, “NATO is of prime importance to us.” She also raised the issue of Russia, which has stoked anxiety in Europe with its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Together with French President Francois Hollande, Merkel brokered the peace agreement known as the Minsk accords, aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Standing alongside Trump, she said relations with Russia need to be improved but not before the Ukraine crisis is resolved.
"There has to be a safe and secure solution" to the Ukraine conflict, she said.
Trump said a “peaceful solution” is needed to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.
He thanked Merkel and Hollande for their work in brokering the 2015 peace deal, though violence between the two sides continues to grind on.
"We ideally seek a peaceful solution" in Ukraine, Trump said.
Trump’s policies on immigration and refugees have also worried Germany and other European allies. In an unusual rebuke from a foreign ally, Merkel in January publicly criticized a White House order that restricted immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The order was later blocked by U.S. courts, and the White House has since modified the directive, though that has also been suspended by two federal judges.
Merkel, who is seeking another term as chancellor in a September national election, has faced enormous pressure in Germany for her relatively open policies on immigration.
Germany, like many European countries, has seen a massive influx of migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa, and a growing number of right-wing and xenophobic political parties across the continent have sought to tap into fears over terrorism and crime.
During the news conference, Trump was also asked about his claims that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ordered wiretaps of Trump’s New York offices during the election campaign.
Trump made the claims on Twitter earlier this month, prompting a denial from Obama’s spokesman and public refutations by top Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Asked by a German reporter about the wiretapping claims, Trump stood by his claim, and responded with a joke referencing reports in 2013 that the United States listened in on Merkel's phone calls.
"At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said, glancing at Merkel.