WATFORD, England – President Donald Trump huddled with NATO leaders Wednesday as House Democrats prepared to resume their impeachment inquiry into whether he abused his presidential authority by urging a foreign leader to open an investigation of his political rival.
Trump sat down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as European leaders, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, are pushing the alliance to get tougher on Turkey after its October invasion of Syria and its purchase of Russian surface-to-air missiles.
Trump has resisted some of those efforts to pressure Erdogan — a point of tension exposed during feisty exchanges with the French leader on Tuesday. The White House, which confirmed the meeting after Erdogan’s office posted a photo of the two leaders on social media, said the pair discussed "the importance of Turkey fulfilling its alliance commitments" as well as security and economic issues.
Trump also planned meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on the sidelines of the NATO leaders’ meeting.
The sessions come amid anticipation of a striking split-screen moment Wednesday when Trump addresses the news media as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., gavels to order the House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing in the impeachment inquiry.
The hearing will be on the constitutional grounds for presidential impeachment.
“The impeachment is going nowhere,” Trump insisted Tuesday as he sat down with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “It is a waste of time. They're wasting their time. And it's a disgrace. It's a disgrace to our country.”
Trump said he remains unconcerned about the unfolding inquiry in Washington with Democrats facing a mountainous climb to remove him from office. While Democrats hold the majority in the House, Republicans control the Senate and not one Republican lawmaker in the upper chamber has signaled support for kicking Trump out of office. An impeachment conviction in the Senate requires 67 votes out of 100.
Democrats argue that Trump acted improperly when he pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son's dealings in the eastern European nation. The vice president's son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
The U.S. president bantered with reporters for more than two hours Tuesday, sitting casually in a salon of Winfield House, the manicured estate of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, where he also met with fellow NATO leaders.
The lengthy exchanges appeared to be the topic of an unguarded conversation recorded during a reception at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was heard telling leaders, including Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that “he was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top." Trudeau also said: “You just watched his team's jaws drop to the floor." Trudeau and Trump met earlier Tuesday.
Trump used those unscheduled press exchanges to slam the ongoing Democratic-led impeachment inquiry as a “”hoax” and professed to be unconcerned about declines in the stock market spurred by his remark that a trade deal with China might not materialize until after the 2020 election.
Trump later paid a call on Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, and attended a NATO welcome reception at Buckingham Palace, before proceeding to an event at the prime minister's residence, No. 10 Downing St. Trump punctuated the day of diplomacy with a fundraiser for his reelection effort that his campaign said brought in $3 million.
The gathering of NATO leaders follows Trump's frequent criticism of alliance members as falling well short in doing their financial part through the first three years of his presidency.
After a NATO summit last year, he called for members devote at least 4% of gross domestic product to military spending and took aim at Merkel, whom he accused of paying Russia ‘"billions of dollars for gas and energy” while failing to meet her nation's commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense.
But at this NATO meeting, Trump — heading toward an election year looking to showcase foreign policy wins — is offering a more optimistic outlook for the alliance’s future. To that end, he suggested he deserved much of the credit for progress.
White House officials say that before Trump took office just four NATO members had reached the 2% benchmark set in 2014. Now there are nine, and 18 of the 29 are projected to meet the benchmark by 2024. Trump is set to have a working lunch Wednesday with what the White House called the “NATO 2%ers.”
The first day of meetings was dominated by the fissures in the Trump-Macron relationship. Before they met on the sidelines of the summit, Trump laced into the French president for what he called “very, very nasty” comments to The Economist about NATO's health with Trump leading its most important member.
Macron didn't back down when they appeared later in the day, and he renewed his own criticism of Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria.
That decision by Trump, made without consulting France or other NATO allies, gave Turkey an opening to launch operations against the Syrian Kurds.
Ahead of the meeting, Erdogan said he would oppose a NATO plan to defend the Baltic region if the alliance does not back Turkey in its fight against Kurdish groups it considers terrorists.
“I’m sorry to say we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table,” Macron said in a swipe at Turkey.
Trump showed more deference to Erdogan, saying that Turkey was “very helpful” during the October U.S. commando raid that led to the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi near the Syria-Turkey border.
“We flew over areas that were totally controlled by Turkey and Turkish military,” Trump said. "We didn’t tell them what we were doing or where we were going. Turkey could not have been nicer, could not have been more supportive.”
At another point in their extended comments before the news media, Trump and Macron had a curt exchange about the repatriation of Islamic State fighters who are European citizens and were captured in Syria and Iraq in recent years. Trump has pressed unsuccessfully for European nations to accept fighters captured by U.S. forces.
“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I can give them to you,” Trump said. “You can take every one you want.”
“Let’s be serious,” Macron responded. “Your No. 1 problem are not the foreign fighters.''
Trump retorted, “'That's one of the greatest non-answers I've ever heard. And, that's OK.”
After such exchanges, however, Trump gave Macron, along with Italy's prime minister, a ride in his armored limo from the reception at Buckingham Palace to the gathering hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.