US President Donald Trump unleashed a blistering attack on Germany and other NATO allies, wasting no time at the outset of a week of high-stakes diplomacy to hit at Washington's closest partners for what he said were hypocritical demands for US security protection.
"Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia because it's getting so much of its energy from Russia," Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in a fiery on-camera exchange that was nearly without precedent in the history of the post-World War II alliance.
"We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that's being paid to the country we're supposed to be protecting you against," Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.
Trump has complained bitterly about Europe's lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations were taking advantage of US military largesse at the same time they were offering unfair trade terms to US businesses. A favorite target of his ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and is beginning construction on a second natural gas pipeline to Russia.
The US leader traveled to Europe saying that a Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the easiest of his week of diplomacy - an unusual assertion that upended NATO leaders' belief that the alliance should project a strong and united front against a strategic rival.
Trump has preferred to take aim at allies. Even Stoltenberg - a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with Trump - appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War. Earlier in the exchange, Trump demanded credit from Stoltenberg for forcing an increase of NATO defense budgets.
"It was also because of your leadership," Stoltenberg told Trump. Budget increases started after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and they have accelerated in the Trump era in response to the US President's criticism.
"We're supposed to protect Germany but getting their energy from Russia," Trump told Stoltenberg, as aides on both the US and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats and appeared uncomfortable. "So explain that. And it can't be explained and you know that."
Germany's energy relationship with Russia has long frustrated Washington and Eastern Europe, who fear that the Nordstream pipeline that bypasses the Baltic nations and Poland could be used to cut them off from crucial energy supplies. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a top executive at the Russian-government-controlled company that runs the Nordstream pipeline.
Trump is in Brussels for two days of NATO meetings. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, spend the weekend at one of his private golf clubs in Scotland, then travel to Helsinki for a high-stakes meeting with Putin.
NATO members have agreed to a long list of efforts they believe will strengthen the alliance against Russia and other rivals, making it easier to speed military forces across Europe and toughen its counterterrorism initiatives.
But many diplomats fear Trump's anger over defense spending will overshadow the summit. Some even worry that he might withhold his signature from an agreement that has already been approved by national security adviser John Bolton, repeating a move he made last month at the Group of Seven summit in Canada.
That would send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether NATO's most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked.
NATO leaders also fear what concessions Trump could make to Putin. Trump has raised the possibility of pulling US troops from Germany. At the G-7 summit, he told leaders that he believed Crimea belonged with Russia because most of its residents are Russian-speaking, another position that would upend much of the West's security decisions against Russia since 2014.
After meeting with Trump, Stoltenberg tried to paper over the differences, telling reporters that the bottom line is that NATO is getting stronger.
"I expect open and frank discussions, and there are disagreements on different issues," he said as he arrived at NATO's gleaming new headquarters for the summit. "But despite those disagreements, I expect that we will agree on the fundamentals that we are stronger together than apart."