It was a simple sentence. Just 27 words.
“We face many threats, but I stand here before you with a clear message: the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance and to Article 5 is unwavering.”
This was what President Donald Trump was supposed to say in his May 25 address to NATO leaders in Brussels as a way of reassuring them about his evolving views toward the European collective-security pact that he once dismissed as “obsolete.” A senior administration source today provided me the language from the deleted sentence, which was part of the final version of the speech signed off on by the Pentagon on May 23; the National Security Council and State Department approved similar language.
But Trump, as I reported Monday, did not say it.
Instead, the sentence regarding the United States and its “unwavering” dedication to Article 5, the one-for-all, all-for-one mutual defense provision that is at the heart of the NATO alliance, was deleted at the last minute from his speech—to the surprise and consternation of his own blindsided national security team.
“This was unambiguous,” the source said, “and it was taken out.”
Had Trump said the missing sentence—or any reference at all to Article 5 and the American commitment to it—he would have avoided a major headache with Western allies and hours of what aides are openly calling “cleanup duty” on the part of top advisers including Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
All of them in recent days have gone out of their way to make public statements reaffirming Article 5 in explicit language. Pence, for example, appearing at a gala ceremony Monday night in Washington, held by the Atlantic Council to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe, touted America’s involvement in NATO and celebrated its newest member, the small Balkan country of Montenegro, whose membership was finalized at the controversial Brussels meeting where Trump spoke.
In fact, the language Pence used was almost a verbatim copy of what Trump’s national security team had expected the president himself to say. “Make no mistake, our commitment is unwavering,” Pence told the Atlantic Council dinner. “We will meet our obligations to our people to provide for the collective defense of all our allies … an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
The White House has not denied that the speech was in fact changed, but has continued to insist—as recently as at Tuesday’s press briefing by White House spokesman Sean Spicer—that it does not matter.
"I don’t know about the contents of the speech but frankly it’s a bit of a silly discussion," Spicer told reporters. Trump’s presence at a NATO event "pretty much speaks for itself in terms of our commitment to NATO and all 13 articles that make up that treaty."
Asked again whether the line was taken out of the speech, Spicer said, "The broader point is the president remains entirely committed to NATO and all of the articles, not just Article 5.”
Spicer’s statement echoes a background briefing to reporters on the president’s trip given by Stephen Miller, the strongly nationalist former Capitol Hill aide now working for Trump whom national security sources told me they believed to be the author of the speech. Miller not only told the journalists aboard Air Force One that it did not matter whether Trump reaffirmed the Article 5 commitment but also went further, claiming, “the first time any of us ever thought about the issue of putting in a ‘reaffirmation’ was when we got inquiries about it after the speech. It was just not ever something that we even considered would be asked about because it just seemed to go without saying. It’s just—it’s what the treaty is.”
But multiple sources across the administration told me in recent days that account is simply not accurate. Trump’s top national security officials, including McMaster, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, supported inclusion of an explicit reference to Article 5 before the speech, and the controversy was the subject of numerous journalistic accounts, including a New York Times article the day before the speech that quoted a White House official as saying an explicit reaffirmation was definitely included in the speech.
And in fact, the source now tells me, even the preliminary draft of Trump’s speech from the White House sent to his national security officials included an explicit reference to Article 5—although the national security officials still pushed for the stronger version, with its mention of a “clear message” and “unwavering” support. There was such concern about how the NATO meeting would go—and making sure in particular that allies were sufficiently reassured by a president who seemed more intent on lecturing them about their insufficient financial contributions—that Mattis even rearranged his schedule to attend the session in person, “squeezing it in to be there.”
How much does it matter?
In recent days, Trump foreign policy advisers have struggled across a variety of fronts to convince their international counterparts that their words still carry weight—and aren’t simply going to be contradicted by the president.
“We’re all seeing the fallout—and all the fallout was anticipated,” a senior White House aide told me.
Added a senior diplomat from a U.S. ally, wondering, like so many others, what to make of the episode and how much to bank on the support offered by their Trump administration interlocutors: “It makes their job so much harder.”