WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump’s assertion that he once told a NATO ally that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever it wants” to the “delinquent” members of the group sent a shockwave across Europe during the weekend.
But in Washington, most Republicans downplayed or defended comments that appeared to incite Russian aggression.
“I was here when he was president. He has not undermined or destroyed NATO,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime defense hawk.
“I think I’m going to look at his actions rather than his words,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who has been a strong supporter of NATO and sending additional aid to Ukraine as the country enters its third phase. year of war after the Russian invasion.
As he inches closer to the Republican presidential nomination for a third straight time, Trump’s tightening grip on the GOP is reshaping the party’s traditional defense of long-standing military alliances and rejection of Moscow, positions that date back to the days of the Soviet Union. Many of those who once would have reacted with concern to NATO’s remarks have largely aligned themselves with Trump’s priorities or chosen to retire as it has become clear that his influence has not waned.
Trump has a long history of bashing NATO, and former administration officials say he has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from the alliance that has been at the heart of American politics for years. decades. A former adviser said he expects Trump to follow through on his threats if he wins a second term.
But his allies and supporters say that, despite his denunciations, Trump did not ultimately abandon NATO while he was president and dismiss his claims as bluster or tough negotiating tactics.
“Look what he’s done in four years,” said retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served in the Trump administration and is now a foreign adviser. “That’s the beauty of the moment. Look at the list.
Some, including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., have credited Trump with pressuring some countries to increase their defense spending. “He kept us in NATO. He did not leave NATO. He made them do what they had to do,” he said.
Even outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, a longtime Trump critic, questioned whether Trump’s comments were serious, while noting that “people in other countries are reading it with concern and doing their math Consequently “.
“What Donald Trump says is often designed to generate media, applause and outrage and he has no intention of doing anything about it,” he said.
But it is clear that Trump and some of those close to him want to change the way the alliance works. In a political video on his campaign websiteTrump pledged to “complete the process we began under my administration to fundamentally reevaluate NATO’s purpose and mission.”
Asked during a Fox News town hall last month whether he would engage with NATO in a possible second term, he replied: “It depends on whether they treat us right.” “.
Kellogg is co-chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute, one of the groups helping lay the groundwork for a possible second Trump term. He argued that Trump’s comments underscored his long-standing frustrations with countries like Germany that he believes are taking over the United States.
Kellogg proposed reshaping NATO as “a tiered alliance” in which Article 5 – the alliance’s provision for collective mutual defense – would apply only to members who meet their defense obligations. defense spending. 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 was invoked was after the attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, now Trump’s last major rival for the Republican nomination, told reporters Monday she was “appalled” by Trump’s comment and questioned why he was siding on the side of “our allies who were with us after September 11”.
She told CNN that Trump “has repeatedly spoken about leaving NATO behind closed doors and publicly. So it’s just a fact.
And John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser and now an outspoken critic, said he believed Trump would almost certainly try to withdraw from NATO if he won a second term.
“To those who say this is exactly the way he negotiates with NATO, I can tell you I was there when he almost withdrew,” he said. “He often talked about leaving NATO. … He was looking for arguments to withdraw from NATO.”
Trump is often criticized for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggesting cutting aid to Ukraine as that country struggles against the Russian offensive. But 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 at the White House.
“The Democrats and the media 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 even more death and destruction under Biden,” said Trump adviser Jason Miller.
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 an unidentified NATO member asked him if he threatened not to defend members of the transatlantic alliance who failed to meet the group’s defense spending targets of 2% of annual gross domestic product.
Nineteen countries fail to reach this benchmarkwhich Trump has often misrepresented by demanding to pay the alliance directly.
“I said, ‘You haven’t paid?’ Are you a delinquent?’ ” Trump recounted telling the person. “He said yes. Let’s just say it happened.
“No, I wouldn’t protect you,” Trump said, adding, “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want.” You have to pay. You have to pay your bills.
It remains unclear whether the conversation Trump recounted on 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 United States would not protect the European Union in the event of an attack. .
“Donald Trump told Ursula: ‘You must understand that if Europe is attacked, we will never come to help and support you,'” Breton said during a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. .
“By the way, NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will leave NATO,” Trump also said, according to Breton.
Whether or not it happened as Trump said, the statement sparked immediate panic across Europewhich continues to fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General issued a rare critical statement on Sunday, warning: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend themselves undermines our entire security, including that of the United States, and places American and European soldiers at increased risk. » And other countries threatened by Russia spoke out. Biden, meanwhile, said NATO’s protection clause “keeps American families safe” and that “any individual who questions the sustainability of this vow constitutes a danger to our security.”
But Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that doesn’t bother him.
“He didn’t talk about anything forward-looking. What he talked about is he told a story, an analogy, whatever we want to call it, about how he approached the issue in the past,” said the senator, who led efforts to include a provision prohibiting any president from withdrawing from NATO. without Senate approval or an act of Congress in the most recent defense policy bill.
“The truth is that NATO is as strong today as it has ever been, and it would not be this way if Trump had undermined it as a leader,” Rubio said.
Colvin and Price reported from New York. Associated Press writer Stephen Groves in Washington and Meg Kinnard in Laurens, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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