Why Trump’s £300B NATO Invoice Never Happened

Why Trump’s £300B NATO Invoice Never Happened
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It must have been a very slow news day at the Sunday Times of London when Bojan Pancevski went public with his latest article titled ‘Germany slams ‘intimidating’ £300bn White House bill.’

The summary of his piece is pretty straightforward: According to “German government sources,” President Trump handed Chancellor Merkel “a bill – thought to be for more than £300bn – for money her country ‘owed’ Nato for defending it when they met last weekend.”[1] The amount was allegedly calculated by adding up Germany’s 2% of GDP defense spending shortfalls over the past 12 years plus added interests. Helpfully, an unnamed German minister also explained that the invoice was “outrageous,” and that “the concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the Chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations.” What makes this breaking story even ‘better,’ or rather more confusing, is that the piece was published behind the Sunday Times’ paywall.

Given President Trump’s vocal position on NATO burden sharing, his ‘Art of the Deal’ business mentality, and the rather awkward interaction with the German Chancellor at last week’s White House photo-op, the ‘invoice’ story was bound to spread like wildfire on social media. Indeed, people were eating it by the pound, with Trump supporters cheering on the President’s action and anti-Trumpers voicing disbelieve and outrage. Even respectable political pundits commented and retweeted the article, further lending credence to the piece.

To be fair, there was no real reason to actually question the article itself. The Sunday Times is not known for spreading fake news, and the story included direct quotes which fit well with President Trump’s known style and attitude.

Strangely, however, the international press stayed as far away as possible from the story. Only a few major outlets such as Politico, the Huffington Post, and The Hill reposted the piece.[2] In contrast, CNBC and Business Insider made the journalistic effort to reach out the White House for comments. Talking to Business Insider, White House press secretary Sean Spicer outright rebuked the story saying that “No it is not true.”[3] Equally, talking to CNBC, White House spokesperson Michael Short noted the report was “false.”[4]

Granted, given the administration’s stance on ‘alternative facts’ and playing it loose with the truth since day one in office, the White House may not be the most credible source nowadays to refute these dicey allegations. Particularly if it involves their supposedly own ‘misbehavior.’

So what about the German press, which put their US colleagues to shame during Merkel’s visit by asking President Trump point-blank why he kept making statements that he knows are not true?[5] If anything the Germans would be all over this insult to their Chancellor and country.

As it turns out, no credible German news outlet even bothered to report on this supposed bombshell story. And when asked during Monday’s Federal Press Conference, German government spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, stated that the report was false. In fact, even when pressed multiple times by journalists on how this alleged ‘invoice’ might have been possibly misconstrued through other comments, Seibert firmly noted that the report was false.[6]

At this point, the story is over. Anyone who still believes that the £300bn invoice is true is crossing the line into conspiracy theory. First, one would have to prove that the White House and the German government are colluding and openly lying to the international press. And Second, one would have to swallow the idea that given all the journalists present during Merkel’s visit to Washington, multiple German government sources only choose to break their silence one week later, and reveal their story exclusively to Bojan Pancevski, who would go on to publish this information behind the paywall of the Sunday Times.

Indeed, the article reveals numerous instances of questionable journalism: First, the unnamed German minister. As far as open source goes, only German business leaders traveled with the Chancellor to Washington. Therefore, the unnamed minister could not have had first-hand knowledge of what transpired in the private meeting. Second, why undermine the anonymity of the source by revealing his/her government position in the first place? And third, the article mentions “German government sources,” e.g. plural. Which seems rather odd, given that all these multiple sources chose to magically avoid talking to the German press for days.

If against all the odds, the Sunday Times’ story turns out to be true, the real question people need to ask themselves, is not why I was wrong, but whether fake news stories are an actual problem when we cannot tell them apart from the real deal.  

Notes:

[1] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/germany-dismisses-white-houses-intimidating-300bn-bill-for-defence-dl7dk629k

[2] http://www.politico.eu/article/donald-trump-handed-angela-merkel-outrageous-nato-bill-report/; http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/donald-trump-nato-invoice-angela-merkel_uk_58d837f5e4b03787d3599eba; http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/325847-donald-trump-printed-out-made-up-ps300bn-nato-invoice-and-handed-it

[3] https://www.businessinsider.nl/300bn-nato-bill-germany-merkel-trump-white-house-2017-3/?international=true&r=UK

[4] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/26/donald-trump-angela-merkel-germany-nato-bill.html

[5] http://www.dw.com/en/us-reporters-praise-german-journalists-for-questioning-trump/a-38004960

[6] Augengeradeaus posted the recording of the Federal Press Conference. The official transcript was not available at the time of writing: http://augengeradeaus.net/2017/03/bundesregierung-dementiert-bericht-ueber-us-rechnung-fuer-truppen-in-deutschland/#more-26770

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