BRUSSELS – Ahead of potentially tense meetings with NATO, President Trump arrived Wednesday in the city that headquarters the historic U.S-European military alliance – which he once described as a "hellhole" because of its immigration and refugee policies.
After a brief arrival ceremony at the Brussels airport, the president headed for a photo opportunity with the king and queen of Belgium and a bilateral meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel that included a discussion of counterterrorism in the wake of Monday's bombing at a concert in Manchester, England, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.
"We are fighting very hard, doing very well under our generals, making tremendous progress," Trump told Michel. "But when you see something like what happened a few days ago you realize how important it is to win this fight. And we will win this fight."
Trump has had harsh things to say about Brussels in the past, criticizing it and other European cities over immigration policies that he says welcome too many poor Muslims and refugees. In a 2016 interview with Fox Business Network, Trump said: “You go to Brussels – I was in Brussels a long time ago, 20 years ago, so beautiful, everything is so beautiful – it’s like living in a hellhole right now."
Yet Trump was full of praise on Wednesday, telling the Belgian prime minister, "It's an honor to be with you."
Trump said he and the king pledged to cooperate "on various problems" and that "the top problem right now is terrorism."
Trump said Monday's bombing in Manchester is a "horrible situation" but expressed optimism in the fight against terror. "We will win," he said.
Along the way to Brussels, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters the president would make some key decisions after his foreign trip, including whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and whether to keep the United States within the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.
The president "hasn't made a final decision" on the Paris agreement which would cap carbon emissions, Tillerson said.
As for the Brussels trip, Tillerson said that the president will advocate that NATO formally join a global coalition to battle the Islamic State, which has taken credit for Monday's deadly bombing attack on concert goers in Manchester, England. Tillerson also said that Trump will continue to pressure NATO allies to increase their own defense spending, saying "he really wants participating NATO members to step up and fully meet their obligations of the burden sharing."
Trump arrived in Brussels after a visit to Rome that included an audience with Pope Francis. The president began his first official foreign visit last weekend with trips to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Tillerson said that the Vatican Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin brought up the climate change issue in a separate meeting with Trump, and urged the president to stay in the Paris climate pact.
“The president indicated we’re still thinking about that, that he hasn’t made a final decision," Tillerson reported.
After the welcoming ceremony at the airport, featuring the U.S. and Belgian national anthems played by a military band, the president and first lady Melania Trump headed for a meeting at the Royal Palace with King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium.
Trump's meetings at NATO headquarters on Thursday follow months of tension between the new president and the 68-year-old military alliance.
Throughout his presidential campaign and beyond, Trump complained that NATO members were not paying enough for their common defense, and that the alliance is not designed to confront the threat of terrorism.
While Trump once described NATO as "obsolete," he took back that claim after an April meeting at the White House with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
NATO and Trump may also discussing ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Tillerson said Trump probably won't decide on U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan for a while. Staff recommendations to Trump are "probably a couple of weeks away, at least." Tillerson said.
Trump is also scheduled to meet Thursday with leaders of the European Union, which is also based in Brussels. Trump has criticized EU trade policies.
Brussels awaited Trump's arrival amid signs of a security crackdown across the Belgian capital. As small food emporiums closed and museums posted reduced hours, authorities closed off some roadways and erected X-shaped barricades strung together with bared wire. Police vans and military trucks moved throughout the city throughout the day.
Belgian soldiers and and police officers, many with rifles slung on their shoulders, patrolled the streets from ,the Grand Place square in the middle of old town to the Royal Palace on the hills of the Upper Town.
Trump is scheduled to leave Brussels on Thursday night. He completes his first foreign trip at the G-7 summit Friday and Saturday on the Italian island of Sicily.