WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday told leaders of the Baltic states, who are worried about Russian aggression, that "nobody's tougher on Russia" than he has been, but that it "would be a good thing" if the United States got along with Russia.
"We just passed a $700 billion military budget. Next year, $716 billion — the largest ever passed. We are going to have a military stronger than we ever have before, by far — that's not exactly a great thing for Russia," Trump told the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at a joint news conference following a closed-door meeting at the Oval Office and a working lunch in the Cabinet Room.
Trump added that he had recently expelled 60 Russian diplomats, far exceeding the number of Russian diplomats expelled by Germany or France.
Last week, the U.S. and more than two dozen countries, including the three Baltic states, collectively expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity over the poisoning of a former Russia spy in Britain. Russia retaliated by expelling more than 150 foreign diplomats, including 60 U.S. diplomats.
Trump noted, "I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President [Vladimir] Putin, and if I did, that would be a great thing. And there is also a great possibility that that won't happen. Who knows?"
At the U.S.-Baltics summit, Trump and Presidents Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania celebrated the 100th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Baltic states, and they discussed how to strengthen security, business, trade, energy, counterterrorism and cultural partnerships.
Trump's commitment to the NATO alliance has been one of the focal points of the summit. He has repeatedly criticized NATO member countries for not contributing what he sees as their fair share to the organization and for being "delinquent."
Trump said that because of him, NATO member countries have started to "pay their bills."
"They were not paying what they should be paying. Since I came in, many, many billions of dollars have been paid by countries that weren't paying, and now they're paying, and they will pay more. Frankly, they will have to pay more," Trump said.
He also complained that NATO countries were not meeting their 2 percent military spending benchmark. In a speech to NATO members last year, he failed to reiterate the U.S. commitment to NATO's Article 5 pledge of mutual defense, which rattled NATO allies.
Experts have pointed out that NATO members do not pay membership fees and that the target spending of 2 percent of GDP on defense is merely a guideline. There is no penalty for not meeting the benchmark.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have grown increasingly worried about Russia's regional military buildup and the possibility that they could suffer a fate similar to that of Crimea.
The countries have since pledged to boost their military spending, counting on NATO allies to provide military assistance should Russia take any action.
Watch related video report by VOA's Cindy Saine:
At Tuesday's press conference, Trump thanked the Baltic states for "fulfilling full obligations and meeting the 2 percent GDP benchmark for national defense this year."
While Trump did not mention the Article 5 pledge of mutual defense at the news conference, he told the Baltic leaders, "For your citizens, we are there for you. As we begin the next 100 years of our partnership, the Baltic republics can trust the United States will remain a strong and proud and loyal friend and ally," he said.
The U.S.-Baltic summit comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West.
In addition to the expulsions of the Russian diplomats, the U.S. and the Baltic states have accused Russia of conducting a barrage of cyberattacks and spreading fake news, propaganda and disinformation online in an effort to meddle in their political systems and sway public opinion in favor of Russia's agenda.
Top U.S. intelligence officials have accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and they suspect Russia is taking steps to undermine the 2018 midterm elections.
On Friday, Russia test-fired its new liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, Sarmat. Latvia's defense ministry said it was concerned by the sudden announcement from Russia that it would test-fire missiles in the Baltic Sea between Latvia and Sweden on April 4 and 6.
Last month, Trump congratulated Putin on his re-election victory and said the two agreed to hold talks in the "not-too-distant future."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the leaders discussed meeting "at a number of potential venues, including the White House."?