WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump made the case to the leaders of the Baltic nations Tuesday that the U.S. was "very tough on Russia," pointing to U.S. support for increased defence spending by NATO countries as a check on Moscow's aggression.
Trump, joined by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, spoke a day after the White House dangled the prospect of extending a White House welcome to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The three former Soviet states border Russia and are viewed as a bulwark against Russian incursions in Eastern Europe.
"Nobody has been tougher on Russia, but getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing. And just about everybody agrees to that except very stupid people," Trump said in a Cabinet Room meeting with the leaders. "We've been very tough on Russia, frankly."
Trump was asked by a reporter if he considered Putin to be a friend or foe. He replied, "We'll find out. I'll let you know."
Later, during a joint news conference with the leaders, Trump said he was hopeful he could have "great dialogue" with Putin but cast the ties between the U.S. and Russia as an open question.
"I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin and if I did, that would be a great thing and there is also a great possibility that that won't happen," Trump said at the news conference. "Who knows?"
Britain recently blamed Russia for the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil. Trump joined Britain in expelling scores of Russian diplomats in response.
Trump has pressured NATO members to boost their military budgets to meet a benchmark of 2 per cent of their GDP on defence annually. He cited that as a benefit to the three Baltic nations, which are NATO members and remain anxious over Russia's increasing military manoeuvrs in the Baltic Sea region.
In its latest effort, Russia planned to hold naval exercises on the Baltic Sea this week complete with missile tests, closing portions of the sea from civilian traffic, a concern to the Baltic nations and the Nordics.
Lithuania's Dalia Grybauskaite told Trump that the U.S. role in NATO is essential, calling the nation a "vital voice" in the military alliance.
"We expect, together with the United States, to go ahead with deep reforms of NATO, especially on decision-making, on decisiveness, on the denial which we expect to see from Russia in case of aggression," Grybauskaite said. "Without the United States, this is not possible."
The Baltic leaders noted their security commitments under NATO. Grybauskaite said the Article 5 collective defence under NATO was "iron-clad for all of us" while Estonia's Kersti Kaljulaid said the countries are "an axis of good."
Trump said NATO "has taken many billions of dollars more than they would have had if you had crooked Hillary Clinton as president." The 2 per cent benchmark concerns how much each country spends on its own defence, not what it pays into NATO.
He also cited the expansion of imports of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. to reduce reliance on Russian gas, again pointing to his vanquished 2016 presidential rival. "My opponent was into other forms of energy, like windmills," Trump said.
The U.S. summit marked the three Baltic nations' 100 years of independence. The countries declared their independence from Russia in 1918 but were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained part of it until 1991.
The press conference included a brief Trump commentary on the U.S. news media. At one point, he gestured to Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis to call upon a reporter for a question, "a Baltic reporter, ideally," Trump said, as American journalists enthusiastically raised their hands and called his name. Trump added: "Real news, not fake news."
Eventually, Trump bypassed the American reporters and the Latvian leader and called on a Baltic reporter himself.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Washington and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.
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