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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s NATO Remarks

President Donald Trump repeated a slew of false claims to an international audience at the annual NATO summit:

  • The overwhelming majority of captured Islamic State fighters are from Iraq and Syria. They are not, as Trump claimed, “mostly from Europe.”
  • Although about half of the territory once held by the Islamic State was regained under President Barack Obama, Trump again wrongly claimed that, “When I came in, it was virtually 100%. And I knocked it down to zero.”
  • The U.S. trade deficit with the European Union has gone up under Trump, contrary to his suggestion that he had reduced it “fairly rapidly.” And as he has done many times, he inflated the amount of that trade deficit.
  • The president wrongly claimed that other NATO member countries’ spending on defense was “heading down” three years ago. That spending went up in 2015 and 2016. And he claimed countries that spent a low percentage of their GDP on defense were “delinquent.” They don’t owe NATO, or other countries, any money.
  • Trump said the U.S. “never used to win” World Trade Organization cases “before me,” which is not so. The U.S. has historically won most of the cases it has brought to the WTO against other nations.
  • He falsely claimed that South Korea was only paying “$500 million a year” under a cost-sharing deal that helps fund U.S. military forces stationed there. South Korea was already paying over $800 million a year when it agreed earlier this year to increase its contribution by 8.2%.
  • A June 2018 joint statement from Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un didn’t say Kim “will denuclearize,” as Trump claimed.
  • Japan pays $1.7 billion to $2.1 billion per year toward the cost of having U.S. troops stationed in the country, while the U.S. spends $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion. But Trump falsely implied that Japan isn’t sharing the cost of the U.S. military presence

The president made his claims in two press appearances during NATO meetings in London on Dec. 3: one appearance with French President Emmanuel Macron and a second with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Captured ISIS Fighters

Trump wrongly claimed that captured Islamic State fighters being held in Syria are “mostly from Europe.” But, as Macron quickly and rightly pointed out, most of the Islamic State, or ISIS, prisoners are from Syria and Iraq.

Trump’s incorrect claim – which we have fact-checked before — came when a reporter asked Trump if France had stepped up in taking back foreign ISIS fighters from France.

“We have a tremendous amount of captured fighters – ISIS fighters over in Syria,” Trump said. “And they’re all under lock and key. But many are from France, many are from Germany, many are from UK. They are mostly from Europe.”

Trump said he had not yet spoken to Macron about that, and then turned and jokingly said to the French president, “Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I can give them to you. You can take every one you want.”

Macron quickly corrected Trump.

“Let’s be serious,” Macron said. “A very large number of fighters you have on the ground are fighters coming from Syria, from Iraq and the region. It’s true that you have foreign fighters coming from Europe, but it is a  tiny minority of the overall problem we have in the region. And I think the No. 1 priority – because it is not finished – is to get rid of ISIS. This is our No. 1 priority. And it is not yet done. I’m sorry to say that.”

Macron is right about most of the captured ISIS fighters being from Iraq and Syria, not Europe.

A report from the inspectors general of the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development said that, based on information provided by the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in mid-June, the Syrian Democratic Forces held about 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention centers across northeastern Syria. Of those, about 8,000 were nationals of Iraq and Syria. The remaining 2,000 were “foreigners from more than 50 countries,” including “about 800 … believed to be from European nations.” The rest, the report says, “are mainly from former republics of the Soviet Union; the Middle East and North Africa; and South and Southeast Asia.”

During a briefing on Aug. 1, James Jeffrey, Trump’s special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, echoed those figures, saying about 10,000 “terrorist fighters” are “under lock and key in northeast Syria.” And he said, “Most of them, about 8,000, are Iraqi or Syrian nationals.”

ISIS Caliphate Reduced by Half Before Trump Took Office

In his meeting with NATO’s secretary-general, Trump again wrongly claimed too much credit for reducing “virtually 100%” of the territory held by the Islamic State. According to figures provided by Trump’s own administration, about half of ISIS’ territory had been regained under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump: We’ve defeated the ISIS caliphate. Nobody thought we could do that so quickly. I did it very quickly. When I came in, it was virtually 100%. And I knocked it down to zero.

As we wrote a week ago when Trump made a similar claim, Trump is discounting ISIS territory reclaimed under Obama.

In a Dec. 21, 2017, briefing, Brett McGurk, then-special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, said that about 98% of the Islamic State land had been recovered by coalition forces, and 50% of that recovery had happened in 2017. “And significantly, 50 percent of all the territory that ISIS has lost, they have lost in the last 11 months, since January,” McGurk said.

Conversely, that would mean about half of the territory had been recaptured before January 2017, under Obama.

About a month before Trump was sworn in, the U.S. commander of the coalition operation said that “almost three million people and more than 44,000 square kilometers of territory have been liberated” from ISIS in 2016. That’s nearly 17,000 square miles.

Estimates of the Islamic State-held land vary. Figures from IHS Markit, an analytics and consultancy firm, show a smaller percentage of land recovered under Obama, but still refute Trump’s claim that ISIS’ territory was at its largest (“virtually 100%”) when he took office. IHS Markit’s estimates put the recovery under Obama at 33%. The rate of recapture did accelerate under Trump, according to the firm’s figures, and in March, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that ISIS’ final stronghold in eastern Syria had been retaken.

U.S.-European Union Trade Balance

Trump made two false claims about the U.S. trade deficit with the European Union.

In his meeting with Stoltenberg, Trump falsely implied that he has reduced U.S. trade deficits with the EU. Trump said that “the deficit for many, many years, has been astronomical … [a]nd I’m changing that, and I’m changing it fairly rapidly.”

In fact, the trade deficit under Trump has gone up 24% — not down. (See the chart below.)

In his meeting with Macron, Trump also exaggerated the size of the U.S. trade deficit with the EU, both currently and before he took office.

“I came into a position where the European Union was making anywhere from $100 [billion] to $150 billion in deficits to the United States,” Trump said. “[W]e have a very unfair trade situation where the U.S. loses a lot of money for many, many years with the European Union — billions and billions of dollars. I mean, to be specific, over $150 billion a year.”

Here are the facts: When Trump took office, the U.S. had a total trade deficit in goods and services with the European Union of $93 billion – not $100 billion to $150 billion — and it has gone up under Trump. The deficit has exceeded $100 billion only three times in the last 10 years, and two of those years were under Trump.

The total deficit was $101 billion for 2017 and $115 billion in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Here is a chart of the U.S. trade deficit with the EU since 1999.

False NATO Repeats

Trump falsely said that the amount other NATO member countries spent on defense “was really heading in the wrong direction — three years ago was heading down.” Before Trump took office, NATO Europe and Canada had increased defense spending in 2015 and 2016.

He also claimed that “a lot” of countries are “delinquent” in their payments. But countries make their own decisions on what percentage of their gross domestic product to spend on their own defense. They don’t owe NATO money if they spend less than other countries choose to do.

The president made his claim about overall defense spending during his appearance with Macron and similarly said in his meeting with Stoltenberg that defense spending for NATO members “was going down for close to 20 years. If you look at a chart, it was like a rollercoaster down, nothing up. And that was going on for a long time.”

Here’s the chart from the most recent NATO report on defense spending, published on Nov. 29:

It does not show defense spending for NATO countries, other than the United States, “going down for close to 20 years.” Instead, it shows spending declining for most of the 1990s, before rising or staying level for most of the next decade. Spending declined from 2009 to 2014, before rising again from 2015 to 2019.

Trump has made similar claims before. As we’ve written, Trump likes to take credit for increased spending by other NATO countries — which have upped their spending on defense by $40 billion, or 15%, from 2016 to 2019 — but he’s wrong to claim spending was “heading down” before he took office. Other countries had increased their defense spending by $12 billion or 4.8% from 2014 to 2016, according to the NATO report. 

In his appearance with Stoltenberg, Trump also claimed: “And yet, you still have many delinquent — you know, I call them ‘delinquent’ when they’re not paid up in full. And then, I asked the other question: When they don’t pay up in full, what happens to the past year? So let’s say Germany is at 1% and they stay at 1% and another 1. … Because, you know, it’s not like, ‘Oh, gee.  Let’s start a brand-new year.’ A lot of countries haven’t paid. And you could make the case that they haven’t paid. They’re, really, delinquent for 25, 30 years.”

But NATO countries don’t owe money to anyone else if they spend less on defense than other member countries.

In 2006, NATO countries made a commitment to aim to spend 2% of their GDP on their own defense. A NATO spokesman at the time said: “Let me be clear, this is not a hard commitment that they will do it. But it is a commitment to work towards it. And that will be a first within the Alliance.”

A 2014 NATO declaration after a summit in Wales again said that countries that weren’t meeting the 2% goal would “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade.”

So, they have until 2024 to meet that target. As of the November NATO report, nine of the 29 member countries met the 2% goal in 2019.

Germany will spend an estimated 1.38% of its GDP on its defense in 2019, while the United States will spend 3.42%.

WTO Falsehood

Trump wrongly claimed that the U.S. “never used to win,” or “very rarely” won, cases before the World Trade Organization prior to him becoming president.

Trump: As you know, we won — in the World Trade Organization, we won seven and a half billion dollars. We never used to win before me, because, before me, the United States was a sucker for all of these different organizations. And now they realize — the World Trade Organization realizes that my attitude on them: If they don’t treat us fairly, well, I’ll tell you someday what will happen.

And we’ve been winning a lot of cases at the World Trade Organization. We virtually — very rarely did we ever win a case. They took advantage of the United States.

Trump is referring to the WTO announcement on Oct. 14 that it was authorizing the U.S. to impose tariffs of up to $7.5 billion a year on European Union goods and services because the EU had failed to remove subsidies for the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus that were inconsistent with a trade agreement and harmed Airbus’ U.S. rival, Boeing.

But Trump was wrong when he said the U.S. has dramatically improved its record on winning WTO cases during his presidency. As we have written, the U.S. has historically won the vast majority of cases it brings, and lost most of the cases brought against it. (That’s generally how other countries fare before the WTO as well.)

“Generally speaking, the US success rate at the WTO is about the same now as it was pre-Trump,” Simon Lester, a trade policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, told us for an October article. “It’s a difficult thing to measure, but based on my assessment, the overall rate has not changed.”

William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official during the Clinton administration, also said Trump’s boast about an improved record with the WTO is “simply not true.”

“There are different ways to count WTO cases, but the consensus view has long been that our winning record is better than other countries, and we lose less than other countries,” Reinsch told us.

As for the Airbus ruling, the trade experts said the more than decade-old dispute had been breaking the United States’ way for years, and the award would likely have come down as it did no matter who was president.

South Korea’s Defense Sharing Contribution

Trump understated South Korea’s prior contributions to the shared cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea by several hundred million dollars.

Trump: I met with [Republic of Korea] six, seven months ago — maybe a little bit longer than that. And I said, “You’re not paying enough. It’s not fair.”

They were paying $500 — they were paying less than $500 million a year and it costs us billions. And I said, “It’s not fair. We do a great job. We have 32,000 soldiers there. It cost us, you know, many times what you’re paying. And you have to pay up.”

And they said — again, in a very good way, very fine negotiation. And they were very close to being at the end of their budget, and we agreed to $500 million more, almost — around $500 million. And that got them up to close to a billion dollars from $500 million — really less than $500 million, which has been that number for many, many years — decades. And I got $500 million more a year.

On Feb. 10, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had agreed to contribute 1.039 trillion Korean won (which is currently about $873 million) in 2019 as part of a new one-year Special Measures Agreement that helps to offset the cost of maintaining a U.S. military presence in South Korea. The deal, which is only for 2019, was officially signed in March, and went into force in April.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that amount was only an 8.2% increase from what South Korea paid in 2018 under a previous five-year deal approved in 2014 that expired at the end of last year. That earlier deal, which went into force in June 2014, called for South Korea to contribute 920 billion won in 2014 and then increase its annual payments at the rate of inflation. That worked out to “approximately $830 million per year,” Trump’s own State Department said in March 2018.

And under the five-year deal before that one, South Korea still contributed much more than $500 million a year. As the State Department said on Jan. 15, 2009: “In the agreement signed in Seoul today, the [Republic of Korea] will provide 760 billion won (approximately U.S. $691.5 million based on the 2008 average exchange rate) in 2009 and will increase the funding level in the subsequent years by the rise in the Consumer Price Index, with a maximum four-percent annual cap.”

North Korea-U.S. Nuclear Statement

Trump misstated what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to do about his country’s nuclear weapons program after their first meeting in Singapore on June 12, 2018.

Trump: [M]y relationship with Kim Jong Un is really good, but that doesn’t mean he won’t abide by the agreement we signed. You have to understand. You have to go and look at the first agreement that we signed. It said he will denuclearize. That’s what it said. I hope he lives up to the agreement, but we’re going to find out.

We looked at the “agreement,” and it does not say that “he will denuclearize.”

Trump and Kim issued a joint statement on June 12, 2018, saying that North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It is a statement of goals, not an agreement. The statement — which is just two pages long — contains no agreement on a denuclearization plan or even on the term “denuclearization.”

Prior to Trump’s visit, Mitchell Reiss, director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Voice of America, “What North Korea means by denuclearization is very different than what the United States and what South Korea traditionally has meant by denuclearization.”

Reiss warned that, in his experience, “it is clear that the United States has to take a number of steps first, such as ending the alliance with South Korea, removing all of its military troops off the Korean Peninsula.”

Six months after meeting with Trump, the official Korean Central News Agency said that North Korea would not dismantle its nuclear weapons program unless the U.S. eliminates its “nuclear threat to Korea.”

“When we refer to the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat not only from the North and the South but also from all neighboring areas targeting the peninsula,” the Korean news agency said in a published statement a year ago. “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be defined as ‘completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea’ before it can eliminate our nuclear deterrent.”

Japan’s Cost-Sharing

Trump falsely implied that Japan isn’t sharing the cost of the U.S. military presence on Japanese territory. 

Trump: Now, in some cases, you have countries that need help that don’t have money. They’re poor and there’s tremendous trauma. There’s tremendous problems and things going on that shouldn’t be going on.  And that’s a different situation.

But we have wealthy countries — I’ve asked Japan. I said to Prime Minister Abe — a friend of mine, Shinzo. I said, “You have to — you have to help us out here. We’re paying a lot of money. You’re a wealthy nation. And we’re, you know, paying for your military, essentially. You have to help us out.” And he’s doing — he’s going to do a lot. They’re all going to do a lot. But they were never asked. Now they’re being asked.

Contrary to Trump’s claims, Japan is helping out the U.S. financially when it comes to its own defense. 

First a little history, courtesy of a Congressional Research Service report issued in October: “The U.S.-Japan military alliance, formed in 1952, grants the U.S. military the right to base U.S. troops — currently around 54,000 strong — and other military assets on Japanese territory, undergirding the ‘forward deployment’ of U.S. troops in East Asia. In return, the United States pledges to protect Japan’s security.”

During the 2016 campaign, Trump complained about the cost of the U.S. military presence in Japan. However, as we wrote at the time, both countries share the financial burden of this strategic alliance. Japan pays “$1.7 billion-$2.1 billion per year (depending on the yen-to-dollar exchange rate) to offset the direct cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan,” while the U.S. spends “$1.9 billion-$2.5 billion per year on nonpersonnel costs on top of the Japanese contribution,” the October CRS report said, citing the Department of Defense comptroller. 

Those payments were made under a Special Measures Agreement that has been in force since 2016, and is generally renegotiated every five years, CRS said.

We covered this topic more thoroughly in our July story, “Trump on ‘Unfair’ U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.”