Donald Trump decided early in his presidency that the United States would stay in Nato, but told his Defence Secretary James Mattis to become its "rent collector".

Following a crunch meeting at the White House, to decide whether Trump was "in or out" of the alliance, the President was persuaded and told Mattis: "You can have your Nato."

The details have been disclosed for the first time in Fear: Trump in the White House, a book due to be published this week by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward.

It was also revealed that Trump may almost have started a conflict with North Korea in early 2018, when he proposed a tweet that "scared the daylights" out of Mattis. The tweet was never sent. According to the book, Trump's doctor had the President's schedule cut back because of "stress". And a picture emerged of Melania Trump as a key, and tough, behind-the-scenes player.

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The dinner meeting to decide Nato policy was convened at the White House at 6.30pm on February 8, 2017 by then chief of staff Reince Priebus. US policy had to be settled ahead of a speech by Mattis in Munich a week later. Trump insisted on talking about the gossip of the day, until dessert, when Priebus said: "We've really got to deal with the Nato issue."

Retired general Keith Kellogg, the National Security Council chief of staff, argued Nato was "obsolete" and the US was being "used" by allies. Mattis and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, argued in favour of Nato. Jared Kushner also interjected, saying the US was only losing "pennies on the dollar" in supporting Nato.

Mattis had confidence Germany would meet the target of paying 2 per cent of GDP on defence. He added: "If you didn't have Nato you would have to invent it. There's no way Russia could win a war if they took on Nato." Trump told Mattis the US would support Nato but allies must pay, saying: "You can have your Nato. But you become the rent collector." Mattis laughed and nodded.

The prospect of conflict with North Korea reportedly came closest early this year when Trump proposed sending a tweet ordering home families of the 28,500 US military personnel stationed in South Korea. North Korea had previously made clear it would regard such a move as a sign of imminent attack.

Trump's planned tweet was considered "almost unthinkable" by aides, Woodward wrote.

The President later raised the idea with Republican senator Lindsey Graham. Graham reportedly told him: "That is a big frigging deal. Mr President, I don't think you should ever start this process unless you are ready to go to war."

According to the book, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump's doctor until earlier this year, repeatedly advised John Kelly, his chief of staff, to "dial back" the President's schedule because he was "under stress". Kelly responded by introducing more non-specific "executive time".

People close to Trump told Woodward there was "sincere affection" in the first couple's relationship, they ate dinner together at times, but Melania Trump "operated independently". Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, was quoted as saying: "Behind the scenes she's a hammer". He believed Melania Trump had the most influence with the President of anyone, identifying who was telling her husband the truth, and who was "sucking up". She was "obsessed" with raising their son Barron, and that was "her focus 100 per cent," one insider said.