After Donald J. Trump suggested he had threatened to encourage Russia to attack “delinquent” NATO allies, the reaction from many Republican officials was three-fold — expressions of support, a look of distaste or even cheerful indifference.
Republican Party elites have become so practiced at rejecting even the most outrageous statements from Mr. Trump that they quickly dismissed this statement. Mr Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, claimed at a rally in South Carolina on Saturday that he had once threatened a NATO government to meet its financial obligations – or else encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell it wants” to the country. .
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed surprised to be asked about Mr. Trump’s remark at all.
“Leave me a minute — I mean, it’s Trump,” Mr. Graham said. “All I can say is that while Trump was president, no one attacked anyone. I think the point here is to, in his own way, make people pay.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, the top GOP official on the Senate Intelligence Committee, struck a matter-of-fact tone as he explained on CNN on Sunday why it doesn’t bother him in the least.
“He told the story of how he used leverage to get people to agree and become more active in NATO,” Rubio told “State of the Union,” rationalizing and sanitizing Mr. Trump’s comments as just a more colorful version of what other U.S. presidents have been. did by urging NATO members to spend more on their own defense. “I have no worries, because he was the president before. I know exactly what he has done and what he will do with NATO. But there must be an alliance. It’s not defending America with a bunch of little junior partners.”
Trump’s comments from the rally stage were not part of his teleprompter remarks, according to a person close to him who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. But the remark – a new version of a story he has told for years – quickly inflamed what were already serious doubts in Europe about Mr Trump’s commitment to NATO’s collective defense provisions. That provision, known as Article 5, says that an armed attack on any member “shall be deemed an attack on all of them”.
Mr. Trump is using his power over the GOP to try to kill recently bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to send Ukraine more weapons and vital resources for its fight against Russia. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but helping Ukraine preserve its independence has become a defining mission of the alliance since Russian President Vladimir V. Putin launched his military invasion in February 2022. And where Mr. Trump might land on a commitment to Ukraine, as the international community and foreign policy experts, become something of a proxy for how he will approach NATO, America’s most important military alliance, in any potential second term.
Officials from smaller and more vulnerable NATO countries are particularly worried because Mr. Trump has already suggested that it is not in America’s national interest to go to war with Russia to defend a tiny nation like, say, Montenegro.
International reaction to Mr Trump’s remarks on Saturday included a rare public rebuke from Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general. Mr Stoltenberg said “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”
The defense of Mr. Trump by several Republican officials, such as Mr. Graham, reflected the trajectory of a party that the former president has largely bent to his will.
Eight years ago, when Mr. Trump was in the midst of his first presidential campaign, Mr. Graham would have given a very different answer. In that campaign, Mr. Graham — initially one of Mr. Trump’s primary rivals, whom Mr. Trump quickly defeated — saw himself as a defender of the Republican Party’s internationalist values against what he saw as an acute threat from Mr. Trump’s isolationism. .
As a wingman for the late Republican hawk and war hero Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Graham traveled the country warning anyone who would listen about the dangers of Mr. Trump. But after Mr. Trump won the presidency, Mr. Graham began to become a friend and close adviser and was welcomed into Mr. Trump’s inner circle. Many others followed a similar path.
In 2016, Mr. Rubio, another foreign policy hawk who ran against Mr. Trump for the party’s nomination, called Mr. Trump a “fraudster” and warned how dangerous he would be if he were entrusted with the nation’s nuclear codes. But after Mr. Trump won, he put those feelings aside, befriended Mr. Trump and is now among a handful of Republicans vying to be his running mate.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, among the most hawkish Republicans on national defense, suggested that European nations in the alliance must do more to maintain their own defenses against Russian incursions.
“NATO countries that are underspending on defense, like Germany, are already encouraging Russian aggression, and President Trump is simply sounding the alarm,” Mr. Cotton said in an interview. “Strength, not weakness, deters aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine twice under Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but not under Donald Trump.”
Several former national security and foreign policy officials in the Trump administration declined to talk about an anecdote Mr. Trump told about threatening a NATO head of state by encouraging Russian aggression. But they said they remembered no such meeting actually taking place.
Mr. Trump likes outright falsehoods to convey stories to make himself look like a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned that Mr. Trump would pull the U.S. out of NATO in a second term, said he had never heard Mr. Trump threaten another country’s leader to encourage a Russian invasion.
Another former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming Mr Trump, delicately described the story as “hyperbole”. Another former official — HR McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser and a retired lieutenant general — had one word for Trump’s comments: “Irresponsible.”
Mr. Trump frequently praises Mr. Putin — he described the invasion of Ukraine as an act of “genius” — and has long admired him as a “strong” leader.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called on Russia to “find” emails that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential nominee and a target of Mr. Putin, had deleted from her private email server. He suggested that Putin is no different, morally, from American leaders. When Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host, pressed Mr Trump shortly after taking office on his admiration for Putin, saying the Russian leader was a “murderer”, Mr Trump replied: “What, you think our country is so innocent? ”
But as president, Mr. Trump’s policy toward Russia has at times been tougher than his predecessor’s — a point Trump’s allies make when statements like Saturday’s are dismissed as rhetorical flourishes. Trump’s allies, who say he will not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that in his first term he authorized sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, something President Obama did not do after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.
As he runs to win back the White House – and polls show he has a good chance of doing so – Mr Trump has been coy about his intentions for NATO. His campaign website contains one cryptic sentence: “We must complete the process that we began under my administration to fundamentally rethink the purpose and mission of NATO.”
When pressed about what that meant, Mr. Trump and his team declined to elaborate.
Mr. Trump has focused in private talks on treating foreign aid as loans, something he has posted on social media, as Senate Republicans tried again on Sunday to pass an aid package after Mr. Trump helped scale back their earlier efforts. But Russia’s comment seems to have surprised his team the most.
Jason Mueller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, when asked to explain the former president’s statements – including whether they were an invitation to new aggression from Russia – did not directly answer the question.
“Democrats and pearl-clutching 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 Mr. Miller. “President Trump forced our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay, but Joe Biden is back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer. When you don’t pay defense costs, you can’t be surprised to get even more money.”
NATO countries’ spending on their own defense increased during the Trump administration, but increased by an even greater amount during the Biden administration, after Russia attacked Ukraine.
Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who served in the Trump administration and has remained close to Mr. Trump and who has also been outspoken about the need to defend Ukraine, spoke at the request of the Trump campaign, saying he did not believe Mr. Trump was opening the door to new aggression.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Kellogg said, has “a case of deterrence.”
He added: “I really think he’s onto something,” saying he believed Mr. Trump’s goal was to get NATO members to focus on Article 3 of the NATO Treaty, which calls on nations to build their individual and collective capabilities as would prevent an armed attack.
“I don’t think it’s an encouragement at all,” Mr. Kellogg said, because “we know what he means when he says that.”