RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump wasted no time in lashing out at NATO allies today in Brussels. He is there for a NATO summit. And at an opening breakfast with NATO's secretary-general, President Trump lambasted NATO countries for not paying enough into the alliance defense budget. Then, he added a new accusation, singling out Germany for an energy deal that it signed with Russia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Why are countries in NATO, namely Germany, having a large percentage of their energy needs paid, you know, to Russia and taken care of by Russia? Now, if you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia.
MARTIN: Of course, it is President Trump who is taking great pains to cultivate a closer relationship with Russia and has been accused himself of having uncomfortably close ties with Vladimir Putin, whom he will meet face-to-face in Helsinki next week.
Senator Chris Coons joins us now in the studio. He is a Democrat from Delaware and serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Coons, welcome back to the show.
CHRIS COONS: Thanks. Great to be on with you.
MARTIN: Let's start off with the president's criticism that European partners aren't paying enough to keep the alliance going. Is that a fair critique?
COONS: It is only fair to the extent that, of the NATO alliance, many of them are still below the 2 percent of GDP target for defense spending that they're supposed to reach by 2024. But let me remind you what they have done. NATO is a collective security alliance. And for the very first time, Article 5 of the NATO Treaty was invoked when the United States was attacked. And more than a thousand NATO soldiers have died fighting in Afghanistan alongside Americans. No other NATO country was attacked on 9/11. The United States was attacked.
And it's not a country club where you get an arrears on your dues and where you're supposed to pay your dues back. It is a collective security agreement. I would have hoped that President Trump would say, you're all actually increasing your defense spending. It's actually gone up by more than 14 billion since he started haranguing them. He should declare victory and then lock arms with our NATO allies and say, let's work together against our real adversary, Russia.
MARTIN: Although, even Jens Stoltenberg, the head of NATO, gave the president credit for the haranguing. I mean, other administrations have tried to take NATO to task, so he does seem to be getting results.
COONS: He has successfully gotten many of our vital NATO allies to increase their defense spending, their interoperability, their training. But frankly, he's also scaring the daylights out of them. I was recently on a bipartisan trip. We went to visit northern Europe, to several of our key NATO allies, and they are gravely concerned.
MARTIN: What did you make of the president's especially tough words on Germany, criticizing this natural gas pipeline it started with Russia?
COONS: You know, look, Germany has long had close ties to Russia in terms of its energy reliance. This has been accentuated because Germany's committed to reducing its nuclear energy fleet as part of its baseload. And so they're increasing their reliance on Russian gas. I think it misses the core point, which is that NATO is a security alliance. And just because they are paying for Russian gas doesn't mean that they are somehow beholden to Russia. In fact, I think all of us have a graver concern that President Trump has an uncomfortably close relationship with Russia.
We passed a resolution on the floor of the Senate last night to instruct the conferees on our defense authorization bill to reinforce the centrality of NATO. The Foreign Relations Committee I serve on is taking another vote later today to reinforce that the president should not recognize Russian annexation of Crimea or do anything to weaken the NATO alliance. That is a strongly bipartisan resolution that I think will get near-unanimous support.
MARTIN: But you mentioned this motion to just generally support the NATO alliance that the Senate overwhelmingly approved. Why did the Senate even feel compelled to do that?
COONS: Because President Trump is such an outlier - even in his own party - in continuing to say things that suggest that we aren't fully committed to the NATO alliance. I commend him for getting our allies to increase their defense spending, but that's not all he's doing. He's saying other things, such as this attack on Germany.
MARTIN: Do you think he's putting the alliance in jeopardy?
COONS: He is.
MARTIN: Do you think that's his goal?
COONS: I'm concerned about that. The allies that I recently visited on this bipartisan CODEL said that they're really concerned that they can no longer depend on the United States.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, I want to ask you about President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. You, soon after his nomination, issued a statement expressing your concern about the type of justice he would be. But Democratic Senator Pat Leahy, longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, was on our program earlier this week saying all senators, Democrats in particular, need to keep an open mind.
COONS: I think...
MARTIN: Is your mind open?
COONS: ...Our job on the Judiciary Committee is to consider a nominee carefully and thoughtfully, to read into their background. We don't have the information on Judge Kavanaugh yet. We should be getting all the information about what he did in the Bush administration, what he did on the Starr independent counsel team that he served on and review his decisions on the D.C. Circuit and then reach a conclusion. That's our job. That's how we should approach it.
MARTIN: So you haven't decided to vote no unequivocally?
COONS: I will tell you that I am leaning against Judge Kavanaugh given what I know so far about his decisional record. But I've known Brett nearly 30 years. I met him in law school, and I followed his career. He is very smart. He is very capable. He is very conservative. But I couldn't yet articulate to you in, like, three sentences, here's why I'm convinced his jurisprudence will take us far too far to the right. But I am concerned across a wide range of important topics.
MARTIN: Just very briefly, though - what leverage do Democrats have to stop this? Republicans don't need your votes to confirm him.
COONS: We need Republicans to recognize that this is important, that courts matter, that it will impact people's lives. And so if you're listening and if you're concerned, call your senator. Don't presume that because of the numbers, this is a foregone conclusion.
MARTIN: Delaware Democratic Senator Christopher Coons in our studio this morning. Thank you so much, Senator.
COONS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.