Trump Didn’t Quit NATO, but a Potential Second Term Alarms Allies

MUST CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Trump, center, speaks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, during a meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House on May 17, 2018 in Washington.

When Donald Trump prepared to speak publicly at a NATO summit in 2018, his own advisers didn’t know if he would blow up the alliance that has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since 1949.

Minutes before the remarks at the group’s glass headquarters in Brussels, the then-president sat behind a horseshoe-shaped table in a room with his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, as they begged him not to quit the alliance, Bolton recalled.

He didn’t, not that day. But Bolton said in an interview that he believes Trump would seek to find a way to kill the alliance if reelected. “He’s never lost the desire to get out,” said Bolton, now a Trump critic.

The possibility that Trump, now the Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential nominee, could turn his back on the United States’ closest military, diplomatic, economic and cultural partners exploded back into headlines on both sides of the Atlantic this month after he suggested in a campaign speech that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to an ally who wasn’t meeting the treaty’s military spending guidelines. President Biden responded on Tuesday: “It’s dumb. It’s shameful. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.” His campaign released an ad Friday blasting Trump for his stance.

Trump’s provocation, delivered brashly to a cheering crowd of thousands in Conway, S.C., was largely consistent with the position he’s voiced on NATO since at least the 1980s. He followed up with several social media posts demanding that allies should “PAY UP” and suggesting that he is dangling U.S. withdrawal to pressure them to boost their own military spending.


Trump’s threats to leave NATO rattled European officials and others when he was last in office, but at the time, White House aides always privately assured allies that the president would not follow through, according to a European ambassador to Washington.

Now, ambassadors and diplomats, closely monitoring U.S. public opinion with unease and bracing for Trump’s possible return, are trying to divine how Trump could reshape the alliance if reelected. They have been working to identify Trump’s key influencers and interlocutors, fearing that instead of people like Pompeo and Bolton, he would in a second term appoint even more sycophantic Cabinet officials who would not restrain him.

Trump’s campaign has called for “fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission” in a second term. Several former Trump aides in recent months floated punishing countries that don’t meet their military spending pledges by withdrawing security guarantees or imposing trade tariffs. And Trump allies working at the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 to plan for another Republican administration have proposed reducing the number of U.S. troops based in Europe.

Some U.S. and European officials fear an American retreat from NATO allies would embolden Russia and China. But on the center-right, a growing constituency is rejecting the foreign interventionism that defined the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. and George W. Bush, and applauding Trump’s impulses to demand more action from Europe – even if not everyone agrees on Trump’s pugnacious way of going about it.

Late last year, Congress passed a new law on a bipartisan basis prohibiting presidents from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO, requiring the approval of two-thirds of the Senate to end U.S. participation in the treaty organization.

European officials have been girding for Trump’s possible return and seeing his influence in the waning Republican support for aid to Ukraine – an issue they feel is tightly tied to their own defense. They are strategizing about how to shoulder more of the burden of supporting Ukraine, and also talking quietly about what they can do if Trump comes back into office and folds up the U.S. military umbrella that has sheltered Europe ever since World War II. Their efforts received a fresh spur Friday after Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny, 47, died in prison. His supporters deemed it a murder.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, NATO members in 2014 agreed to target spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense. As of 2023, most of the countries geographically closest to Russia, such as Poland and Finland, met the guideline alongside the major militaries of the United States and Britain. France spent 1.9 percent; Germany 1.65 percent.

Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, said in a statement that Europe was peaceful while Trump was president but experienced “death and destruction” while Biden was vice president and now president. “President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer. When you don’t pay your defense spending, you can’t be surprised that you get more war,” he said.

Most Trump advisers and former administration officials described his swipe at NATO as a negotiating tactic aimed at pressuring allies to increase military spending, and unlikely to lead to actually leaving the alliance.

Bolton, though, doesn’t share that confidence. “For people to say he’s just bargaining, they haven’t heard Trump directly the way I had,” he said.

‘Should we make history here?’

There has been near unanimous bipartisan support for the alliance as a counter to first Soviet and later Russian ambitions for decades. But frustration with European free-riding on U.S. military might also dates back to NATO’s first decade. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the allies were close to “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.”

In 1987, Trump, then a famous developer with ambitions to build around the world, including in Moscow, appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and fielded a question from a caller who wondered why West Germany wasn’t paying for the U.S. troop presence there. Trump responded with an answer that would be equally plausible to hear from him today: “I agree with you on NATO,” Trump told the caller. “If you look at the payments that we’re making to NATO, they’re totally disproportionate with everybody else’s. And it’s ridiculous.”

By 2015, as Trump was campaigning for the White House, he began talking about NATO as “obsolete” – a Cold War throwback not up to the contemporary task of fighting terrorism. “We’re going to get bigger than NATO,” Trump said in a November 2015 interview with Stephen K. Bannon, his future adviser then running the far-right website Breitbart News. “I’d put a whole group together.”

Trump’s victory in the 2016 election sent shock waves through NATO, where few policymakers had taken seriously the prospect that he could actually win. Overnight, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – who had questioned Trump’s rhetoric before the election – changed his tone, repackaging defense spending increases that had started after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as victories for Trump’s hard push for Europe to do more.

In an April 2017 meeting at the White House with Stoltenberg, a few months after Trump took office, Trump said he no longer considered NATO “obsolete,” taking credit for unspecified changes in the alliance.

But to aides, Trump frequently ranted privately about the alliance, griping that European countries complained about Moscow’s aggression but propped up the Russian economy by buying natural gas and that the Europeans “screwed us on trade deals,” according to Bolton. Above all, Trump complained about European military spending, falsely alleging again and again that NATO nations owed the United States money.

When discussing world affairs Trump would bring up NATO “and some wild figure of bills owed that varied by the day,” said a former senior administration official, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details about private White House discussions. “We just got used to it.”

To Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, the complaints were a negotiating tactic, a way to find leverage against European leaders, whom Trump seemed to instinctively distrust.

“He was more consistent in saying NATO should pay their fair share,” Short said. “That’s way different than saying, ‘Let’s pull out and let the Russians go in.’ That’s totally different.”

H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser from February 2017 to April 2018, repeatedly told Trump that the 2 percent guidepost for military spending was a goal and not a requirement. No country owed the United States money as a result. “There is no payment due,” McMaster would say, according to the former official. “It’s a goal.”

“[Trump] was reminded over and over – he didn’t really care. He understood that, but he liked the way he explained it better,” the person said.

Another former senior administration official said Trump also “constantly” talked about NATO while in office, as well as the prospect of pulling troops from Germany and South Korea and both withdrawing troops from Africa and closing all U.S. embassies there.

“He sees these treaties and partnerships as transactional relationships, and he is constantly looking at the ledger and saying, ‘Is this a good deal or is this a bad deal?’” the official said. “He views America’s forces abroad, and America’s protection, as a service to be paid for.”

Trump’s sharpest interaction came when NATO leaders convened for a formal summit in 2018. Bolton recalled Trump calling him up to his spot at the big oval where world leaders were seated.

“Should we make history here and pull out of NATO?” Trump asked as he prepared to speak, according to Bolton.

Bolton said he suggested Trump “go up to the line but not cross it.”

As the meeting began and the conversation turned to Ukraine and Georgia, Trump interrupted and demanded that leaders commit to doubling their defense spending goals on the spot or, he said, he would do his “own thing,” according to multiple policymakers who were in the room with him.

As Trump went down a list of countries, he called out their leaders one by one, declaring that even if they were nice to him in their interactions, their defense spending sent a different message. Stoltenberg did his best to rein back the conversation. He steered it away from talk of specific commitments that other leaders would be unable to deliver on the spot, and instead won Trump’s assent to commit more generally to swift spending increases. The U.S. president declared victory as he departed as other diplomats struggled to process what they’d witnessed.

After the meetings, some senior diplomats declared the need to up their defense spending. And in the NATO countries that bordered Russia and faced the most immediate threat from the Kremlin, there was an appreciation for some of the tough tactics to push more comfortable neighbors to their west to up their military commitments.

“It was quite a summit,” said Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics, who took part in the 2018 summit as his country’s foreign minister. “We actually were supportive of his push to spend more. There was an understanding that the U.S. will not accept a free ride.”

At his final NATO summit, in London in December 2019, Trump focused on the spending increases that had taken place while he was president.

When he took office, spending had been on the rise since 2014, motivated by fears of Russia following its annexation of Crimea. But only four NATO countries apart from the United States were meeting the 2 percent spending target. That had doubled by the time he departed. European policymakers say that Trump’s pressure made a difference, but many also say that the growing security threat from Russia has been at least as much a motivation. By the end of this year, 17 countries will meet the threshold, more than half the alliance, NATO estimates.

At that summit, Trump had a warm breakfast meeting with Stoltenberg and his staff that ended with his signing the breakfast menu of each member of the NATO side of the table, a participant of the breakfast said.

‘Trump has gotten the Europeans’ attention’

Even without the formal withdrawal that Trump at times pushed for when in office the first time, a second Trump presidency would be poised to transform the transatlantic relationship and in some ways has already started to. His critiques of lagging spending by allies is no longer an idiosyncrasy but has become a popular position among Republican foreign policy experts. Even more traditional hawks such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tamed their brushback to Trump’s recent remarks.

“This time they’ll be more prepared to have people in the administration who are more aligned to the America First idea,” said Sumantra Maitra, a senior fellow at the pro-Trump think tank Center for Renewing America whose paper on stepping back from NATO gained notice in Trump’s orbit.

The emerging Republican consensus on NATO was articulated by Trump’s former acting Pentagon chief, Christopher C. Miller, as part of Project 2025, a coalition of more than 90 conservative groups convened by the Heritage Foundation to develop off-the-rack policy plans for the next Republican administration. In the chapter on the Defense Department, Miller proposed to “Transform NATO so that U.S. allies are capable of fielding the great majority of the conventional forces required to deter Russia… while reducing the U.S. force posture in Europe.”

Some right-of-center experts and former officials argue that Europe is wealthy enough to defend itself against whatever threat Russia may pose, and that the expansive U.S. presence on the continent is no longer justified particularly as the United States confronts pressing challenges from China.

“Does Trump sound like a mafia don running a protection racket? He sure does,” said Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But is there something more to this debate? I think so. The polite, establishmentarian wing of the policy community has made these complaints too. The rude boorish mafia-don Trump version of this, sad to say, may be required to get the Europeans’ attention. Trump has gotten the Europeans’ attention.”

Others, though, who support lessening U.S. commitments in Europe cautioned that Trump’s glass-smashing approach could be counterproductive by making the debate about himself, antagonizing allies and appearing to boost Russia, a U.S. adversary.

“That kind of rhetoric coming from Trump as the former and potentially future president is kind of poisonous for the general restraint worldview that people like me espouse,” said Ben Friedman, policy director of Defense Priorities, a foreign policy group backed by billionaire Charles Koch.

For the NATO countries that border Russia – the three Baltic states, plus Poland, Finland and Norway – the question of Trump’s commitment to the alliance would be existential, even short of a formal move to close up the U.S. shop in Brussels.

Even if a NATO member is attacked, the only person who can command U.S. troops into action is the president – and nothing about the alliance’s treaties compel him to do so. If Trump makes clear he won’t defend NATO territory, the alliance would lose its deterrent power, they fear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has repeatedly declared his historical grievances about chunks of NATO territory he believes are rightfully Russia’s, including the Baltic states and parts of Poland. Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said Tuesday that Russia was expanding its military from 1.15 million to 1.5 million by 2026 in preparation for a potential war with NATO.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed for more defense capabilities to be built out as part of the European Union, a 27-nation bloc that has historically focused more on jobs and trade than on security. But not all countries are on board, which is the challenge Europe has traditionally faced when trying to act in coordination.

The threat of the U.S. being an unpredictable ally is having a practical effect on the ground, with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania discussing how to strengthen their collective border defenses with Russia in the event of an attack. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner on Tuesday called to open a discussion about a collective E.U. nuclear weapon capability – long a taboo within German political life.

Stoltenberg’s efforts to manage Trump continue, more than three years after Trump left office. As ever, the NATO head focuses on increased defense spending and downplays other comments, like the invitation for a Russian invasion, that are at cross-purposes with NATO’s mission.

“We have to listen and take note of the following,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday. “The criticism that we hear is not primarily about NATO. It’s about NATO allies not spending enough on NATO.”