Trump's tough talk at NATO prompts media freakout about insulting allies

As Americans were just waking up for breakfast, they discovered that President Trump was ruining breakfast for NATO leaders.

And many pundits were having a collective case of indigestion.

The sense of queasiness was perfectly captured when MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi declared, "Wow, this looks like everyone's nightmare Thanksgiving dinner." A CNN banner declared that the president "Insults Allies."

Anyone who thought Trump would go to Brussels, smile for photos and make polite chit-chat hasn't been paying attention.

But the press is right to be covering this as more than a break-a-little-china moment. What the president is doing does represent a fundamental challenge to the western alliance that could have long-lasting repercussions.

Trump has been complaining since taking office that some NATO members don't spend enough on defense, leaving the U.S. shouldering too much of the burden, and it's an issue that predates his tenure. But yesterday he broadened his assault in what the Washington Post called a "blistering tirade."

Many NATO members are "delinquent," Trump told the breakfast session, and "owe us a tremendous amount of money from many years back."

And then he went after Germany, saying it was "totally controlled by Russia." The reason, Trump said, is that Angela Merkel's government is doing a $10 billion pipeline project with a giant Russian firm and will be overly dependent on Russia for its energy as its "captive."

"So we're protecting you against Russia, but they're paying billions of dollars to Russia, and I think that's very inappropriate," he said.

Merkel hit back on a personal note, saying she grew up in "a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union," and she prefers today's democratic state to East Germany.

The president has a bit of a point, in that America has NATO under its defense umbrella in part to resist Russian aggressiveness. But all western countries, including the United States, trade with Russia.

The larger question, given Trump's determination to forge a friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin, is whether he sees much need for NATO, which he once called "obsolete." On that point, the post-World War II NATO alliance is about more than confronting Russia. NATO members have cooperated on trouble spots around the world, and U.S. and NATO forces are now stationed in Afghanistan.

The press didn't have to look far for critics. Chuck Schumer called Trump's comments an "embarrassment" and "another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies."

What's striking, in watching the initial media freakout, is how Trump's detractors are as upset with his two-fisted style as with the direction of the punches. There is a vital debate, to be sure, about the future of NATO, but many commentators are simply offended by Trump's undiplomatic approach in challenging our allies.

And yet within hours of the breakfast, Trump joined the other leaders in approving a plan to bolster defenses against Russia and terrorism.

And that's the thing that many Trump critics still fail to understand. To him, these meetings and summits are a show and he needs to deliver a riveting performance. It's similar to what he did with his confrontational approach to the G-7, where he picked a fight with Justin Trudeau.

And what was the sitdown with Kim Jong-un if not a made-for-television extravaganza?

But once that spotlight fades, it remains to be seen whether the administration negotiates sweeping changes (not going so well in the case of North Korea) or engages in compromise.

And that, in the end, will be more important than what Trump said over a Belgian breakfast.