Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of Congress in a private meeting this week that the recent NATO summit was “one of the most productive” he has ever attended.
The comment came during a breakfast on Wednesday with a group of Republican and Democrat members of Congress, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, when asked if that was in line with his thinking, responded, “Definitely.”
The private comments contradict how the NATO summit has been broadly portrayed in the mainstream news media. Reports portrayed Trump as having accomplished little other than upsetting allies and weakening the military alliance.
“NATO is still reeling from the president’s blunt-force attack on the decades-old military alliance,” Vanity Fair reported a day after it ended.
Mattis attended last week’s NATO summit with President Trump, along with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. All kept a low profile during the summit, which was for the heads of state of NATO members and partners.
At the beginning of the summit, Trump criticized members, particularly Germany, for not spending enough for its own defense. NATO members in 2002 pledged to spend a minimum of two percent of their gross domestic product on their defense budget, and in 2014, pledged to meet that goal by 2024.
However, only four of 29 members currently meet that goal, and only 16 have a plan to reach it by 2024. The U.S. spends about 3.58 percent of its GDP on defense, while Germany spends about 1.24 percent. Trump also attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for an energy deal that benefitted Moscow, while at the same time relying heavily on the U.S. to protect Europe from Russian aggression.
But by the end of the two-day summit, Trump called it “very successful” and said NATO was stronger than ever before, noting that defense spending had gone up by $33 billion since he began calling for it last year.
In Croatia a day after the summit, Mattis called it “highly successful.” He expanded on that later in the day as he flew to Oslo, Norway, telling reporters that the summit had been “honest in discussion.”
I think the very fact that people stopped going just through a set timeline, and stopped to actually talk about fundamental issues, levels of commitment of national treasury, of commitments of forces. What happened — it has — it’s almost like it washes away all the veneer and people really talked about where they stand.
“So I’d say the summit was purposeful in what it gave NATO. It gave a sense of shared purpose that needed to be — it needs to be refreshed in any organization,” he said.
The next day in Oslo, Mattis said, “NATO is stronger today than it was yesterday, stronger than it was a month ago, stronger today than it was a year ago.”
In the months leading up to the meeting, Mattis had met with his NATO counterparts and urged them to increase defense spending and resources to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Since becoming secretary of defense in January 2017, Mattis has attended at least five NATO defense ministerial meetings, in February 2017, June 2017, November 2017, February 2018, and June 2018.