President Donald Trump said Wednesday that U.S. troops are withdrawing from Germany for the "simple" reason that the Germans failed to pay their bills, not over the strategic concerns cited by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
"It's very simple. They're delinquent," Trump said at the White House before leaving on a campaign trip to Texas.
Germany failed to meet its obligation to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, he said, "so we're reducing the force because they're not paying their bills."
However, Trump said he might reconsider the withdrawal he ordered in June "if they start paying their bills."
The president's remarks appeared to undercut Esper, who at an earlier Pentagon briefing posed the withdrawal of 11,900 U.S. troops from Germany as part of a plan long underway to implement the National Defense Strategy by creating a leaner and more agile force in Europe better able to deter Russia.
The initial response in Germany was cautious and suggested an expectation that the policy might change depending on the outcome of the November elections in the U.S.
"Unfortunately, this puts a burden on the German-American relationship," Minister President of Bavaria Markus Söder told Deutsche Welle, the German broadcast service.
"We are now waiting to see if the decision will last," Soder said in a pointed reference to the possibility that Trump might lose in November.
In a Twitter post, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the U.S., called the withdrawal "bad news" for the NATO alliance in that "it sends the wrong signal of U.S. disengagement to Moscow."
Reaction to the withdrawal broke down along the usual lines among Trump supporters and opponents on Capitol Hill and in the ranks of retired military members.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said on Twitter, "This is a very bad strategic move for the US. Pulling troops out of Germany hurts us much more than it hurts our allies."
However, retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank, called the withdrawal "a welcome first step to a necessary and overdue reduction of U.S. forces on the continent."
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a staunch Trump supporter, said in a statement last week that he had been briefed on the basics of the withdrawal and backed the proposal. But he noted that "this concept will take months to plan, and years to execute."
But Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking committee member, called the plan "a self-inflicted wound by President Trump against American interests."
In a statement, Reed said the plan is of the type that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "was able to stand up to in the past, but this administration seems to be unraveling under the strain of the pandemic."
On the House side, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a cautious statement, saying, "Some of the proposed moves clearly have merit. … It is essential that we consult closely with our NATO allies on any changes."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.