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After blasting NATO, Donald Trump says meeting Vladimir Putin will be ‘easiest’ part of European trip

Trump says Putin summit ‘easiest’ part of Europe tour ahead of meeting with NATO leaders
WATCH: U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday before heading to Europe his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely be the "easiest" part of his trip, as he is set to meet with NATO leaders and visit the United Kingdom ahead of the summit with Putin.

BRUSSELS – U.S. President Donald Trump launched a week-long Europe trip Tuesday with harsh criticism for NATO allies and predicted the “easiest” leg of his journey would be his scheduled sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As he departed the White House for a four-nation European tour, Trump did little to reassure allies fretting over the risk of damage he could do to the 69-year-old trans-Atlantic mutual defence pact and his potential embrace of Putin during a summit in Helsinki.

READ MORE: Donald Trump blasts NATO alliance ahead of summit, meeting with Vladimir Putin

Trump said Tuesday he “can’t say right now” if Putin is a friend or foe, but called him a “competitor.” The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy, and warns of further attempts at interference both in the 2018 midterms and in European elections.

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Speaking to reporters before leaving Washington for Brussels, where he is to attend the NATO summit, Trump criticized the pact, saying, “Frankly it helps them a lot more than it helps us.”

WATCH: Trump says he ‘can’t say right now” if Putin is a friend or foe of the U.S. 

Putin ‘friend or foe’ of U.S.? Trump says ‘competitor’
Putin ‘friend or foe’ of U.S.? Trump says ‘competitor’

Trump has been pressing NATO countries to fulfil their goal of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic products on defence by 2024. During his presidential campaign, he suggested he might only come to the defence of NATO nations that fulfilled their obligation. He continues to criticize NATO countries for not paying their fair share.

From Belgium, Trump’s trip will also take him to London, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is in turmoil over her plans for exiting the European Union.

WATCH: Experts feel Trump will divide nations at NATO summit
Experts feel Trump will divide nations at NATO summit
Experts feel Trump will divide nations at NATO summit

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday in a message to Trump that “it is always worth knowing who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem.” Tusk recalled that the Europeans are spending more than Russia and as much as China on defence. NATO estimates that 15 members, or just over half, will meet the benchmark by 2024 based on current trends.

READ MORE: Why Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO might make some leaders less likely to spend more

“Getting ready to leave for Europe. First meeting – NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning, adding: “Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!”

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On Monday he’d tweeted the situation was “not fair, nor is it acceptable,” and insisted that NATO benefits Europe “far more than it does the U.S.”

He added: “NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!”

WATCH: White House says no change to Crimea policy as Trump prepares for summit with Putin
White House says no change to Crimea policy as Trump prepares for summit with Putin
White House says no change to Crimea policy as Trump prepares for summit with Putin

Trump, who has compared the sentiment that underpinned the Brexit vote to leave the EU to his own election, will be making his maiden presidential trip to Britain at a fraught time for May. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned within hours of each other in protest of her plan. Trump said might meet with Johnson in the UK despite his resignation.

Trump’s visit is expected to attract large protests in London and elsewhere in Britain.

Trump’s weeklong trip to Europe will continue with a stop in Scotland before ending with a sit-down in Helsinki with Putin.

He said that of the high-stakes meetings of his trip, “Putin may be the easiest of them all.”

READ MORE: As Trump and Putin prepare to meet, Trudeau set to visit troops deterring Russia in Latvia

“I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, getting along with others is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he added.

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The meeting will be closely watched to see whether Trump will rebuke or embrace Putin, who has repeatedly denied the allegations of election meddling, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Colvin reported from Washington. AP writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.