Trump’s Threat to NATO Allies Draws Little Condemnation from GOP, Reflecting His Grip on the Party

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump ‘s claim that he once told a NATO ally that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to “delinquent” members of the group sent shockwaves through Europe over the weekend.

But in Washington, most Republicans downplayed or defended remarks that seemed to invite Russian aggression.

“I was here when he was president. He didn’t undermine or destroy NATO,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime defense hawk.

“I think I’ll look at what his actions are rather than what his words are,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who has been a strong supporter of NATO and of sending additional aid to Ukraine as the country enters its third year of war after Russia’s invasion.

Trump’s tightening grip on his party as he closes in on a third straight Republican presidential nomination has reshaped his party’s traditional defense of longstanding military alliances and rejection of Moscow going back to the days of the Soviet Union. Many who once would have responded with alarm to such remarks have largely fallen in line with Trump’s priorities or have chosen to retire as it has become clear his influence has not waned.

Trump has a long history of denigrating NATO, and former administration officials say he repeatedly threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance that has been central to U.S. policy for decades. One former adviser said he expects Trump to move forward with his threats if he wins a second term.

But allies and supporters argue that, despite his denunciations, Trump did not ultimately abandon NATO while president and dismiss his claims as bluster or tough negotiating tactics.

“Just look what he did in four years,” said retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served in Trump’s administration and is now an outside adviser. “That’s the beauty of right now. Look at the track record.”

Some, including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., credited Trump with pressuring some countries to increase their defense spending. “He kept us in NATO. He didn’t leave NATO. He made them do what they needed to do,” he said.

Even outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a longtime Trump critic, questioned whether Trump’s comments were serious, while noting that “people in other nations read it with concern and make their calculations accordingly.”

“What Donald Trump says is often designed to elicit media and applause and outrage and he has no intent of actually doing anything about it,” he said.

But it’s clear that Trump and some around him want to change the alliance.

In a policy video on his campaign website, Trump pledged to “finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”

Asking during a Fox News town hall last month whether he would be committed to NATO in a possible second term, he responded, “Depends if they treat us properly.”

Kellogg, who serves as co-chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute, one of the groups helping to lay the groundwork for a possible second Trump term, argued Trump’s comments underscored his longstanding frustrations about countries like Germany that he believes are freeloading off the U.S.

Kellogg has proposed refashioning NATO as “a tiered alliance” in which Article 5 — the alliance’s provision for collective mutual defense — would only apply to members who reach their defense spending obligations. He stressed that he was speaking for himself, not Trump or the campaign, and declined to say whether he had discussed the proposal with the former president.

The only time Article 5 has been invoked was after the U.S. was attacked by al-Qaida on Sept. 11, 2001.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, now Trump’s last major rival for the Republican nomination this year, told reporters Monday she was “appalled” by Trump’s comment and questioned why he was siding against “our allies who were with us after 9/11.”

She told CNN that Trump “talked many times about getting out of NATO behind closed doors and publicly. So that’s just a fact.”

And John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser and now a strident critic, said he believed Trump would almost certainly try to withdraw from NATO if he wins a second term.

“To those who say this is just the way he bargains with NATO, I can tell you I was there when he damn (near) well withdrew,” he said. “He often referred to getting out of NATO. … He was looking for arguments to withdraw from NATO.”

While Trump is often criticized for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggesting cuts to aid to Ukraine as it fights Russia’s offensive, the former president’s allies note that Russia seized Ukrainian territory in 2014 during the administration of then-President Barack Obama and then launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, with President Joe Biden in the White House.

“Democrat and media pearl-clutchers seem to have forgotten that we had four years of peace and prosperity under President Trump, but Europe saw death and destruction under Obama-Biden and now more death and destruction under Biden,” Trump adviser Jason Miller said.

Trump’s comments came at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, where he told a familiar story aimed at demonstrating his negotiating prowess. He recounted how he had been asked by an unidentified NATO member about his threat not to defend members of the transatlantic alliance who fail to meet the group’s defense spending targets of 2% of annual gross domestic product.

Nineteen countries fall short of that baseline, which Trump has often distorted as a requirement to directly pay the alliance.

“I said, ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?'” Trump recounted telling the person. “He said: ‘Yes. Let’s say that happened.’

‘No I would not protect you,” Trump said, adding: “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.”

It remains unclear whether the conversation Trump recounted Saturday actually took place. The former president has a long history of fabrications and exaggerations. Aides declined to answer questions about the conversation.

But at a forum last month in Brussels, French European Commissioner Thierry Breton recounted that Trump made similar comments in 2020, telling NATO European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that “NATO is dead” and that the U.S. would not protect the European Union if attacked.

“Donald Trump said to Ursula, ‘You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and to support you,” Breton alleged Trump said at a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“By the way, NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will quit NATO,” Trump also said, according to Breton.

Regardless of whether it happened as Trump said, the statement sparked immediate panic across Europe, which continues to grapple with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a rare critical statement Sunday, warning, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” And other countries threatened by Russia weighed in. Biden, meanwhile, said NATO’s protection clause “keeps American families safe” and “any individual who calls into question the durability of that vow is a danger to our security.”

But Rubio, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he wasn’t bothered.

“He did not talk about anything prospective. What he talked about is he told a story, an analogy, whatever we want to call it, about the way he approached it in the past,” said the senator, who led efforts to include a provision that prohibits any president from withdrawing from NATO without Senate approval or an act of Congress in the most recent defense policy bill.

“The truth of the matter is that NATO today is as strong as it’s ever been, and it wouldn’t be that way if somehow Trump had undermined it as a leader,” Rubio said.