Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s prime minister, left, speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Italy's Gentiloni Vows to Meet Trump NATO Spending Demand Slowly

(Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni promised to contribute more toward NATO’s defense, responding to a pet peeve of President Donald Trump. Only not quickly.

“The commitment has been made,” Gentiloni said Thursday at the White House during a joint press conference with Trump as the two leaders held their first summit. “We are used to respecting our commitments.”

But, he added, “this will be a gradual process” given “that Italy has certain limitations when it comes to its budget.”

Trump has berated countries that fail to meet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s guideline for each country’s defense budget -- 2 percent of gross domestic product. Italy spends about half that amount -- 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016, according to NATO estimates.

When a reporter at the press conference asked Gentiloni whether Italy would raise its defense spending to meet the threshold, Trump took the opportunity to needle the prime minister on the point.

“I love the question you asked the prime minister,” Trump responded. “I look forward to his answer. Because I’m going to ask him very soon.”

Italy's Gentiloni Vows to Meet Trump NATO Spending Demand Slowly

Trump’s demand for increased contributions from NATO allies has been a consistent theme, as a candidate and as president. While he at times also had called the military alliance “obsolete” he has since embraced it as a bulwark of collective defense.

During a speech Tuesday at a tool factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Trump said he had asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to deliver a message to NATO partners while he’s in Europe this week.

“Paul, you’re over with NATO; get them to pay their bills,” Trump said. “They are really sort of letting us down in that one respect, and we don’t want people taking advantage of the United States. ”

Only five of the alliance’s 28 member countries met the 2 percent threshold in 2016. However, total defense spending by NATO members grew an estimated 3.8 percent in 2016, after declining from 2009 to 2014.

Former President Barack Obama also criticized NATO members for not meeting their defense spending obligations, though he didn’t go as far as Trump.

Trump is slated to travel to Brussels for a summit of leaders of NATO nations on May 25. He also plans to attend the Group of Seven annual gathering of leaders of major industrialized democracies in Italy next month.