Campaign Roundup: Donald Trump Says He Will Not Protect “Delinquent” NATO Members
from The Water's Edge and Renewing America

Campaign Roundup: Donald Trump Says He Will Not Protect “Delinquent” NATO Members

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The forty-fifth president says he will encourage Russia to attack NATO countries who don’t spend enough on defense.
President Donald Trump sits next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a NATO working lunch in Watford, Britain, on December 4, 2019.
President Donald Trump sits next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a NATO working lunch in Watford, Britain, on December 4, 2019. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

NATO continues to experience a turbulent seventy-fifth anniversary year.

Last Saturday night, Trump told a campaign rally in South Carolina that when he was president the leader of an unnamed NATO country asked him: ‘Well, sir, if we don't pay and were attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ I said: ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ He said: ‘Yes, let’s says that happened.’ ‘No I would not protect you.”

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Those words by themselves didn’t make news. Trump has for years described NATO as if it were a protection racket in which member states pay the United States to provide their security. In his view, the allies paid for the services provided. The forty-fifth president has been told repeatedly that is not how NATO works. Member states do not pay dues and they don’t owe money to the United States. However, the corrections have never taken hold.

What did make news was what Trump said after saying he would not protect “delinquent” U.S. allies: “In fact, I would encourage them [the Russians] to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay! You gotta pay your bills.” Presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower have complained about the Europeans not spending enough on defense. But never had a former U.S. president, or a likely major party presidential nominee, suggested that the United States should encourage another great power to prey on a U.S. ally.

The reaction from the White House was predictably sharp. Its initial statement said: “Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged.” President Joe Biden then accused Trump of having “bowed down to a Russian dictator,” adding that Trump’s comment was “dumb. It’s shameful. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American. When America gives its word, it means something. When we make a commitment, we keep it, and NATO is a sacred commitment. Donald Trump looks at this as if it’s a burden.”

Nikki Haley said much the same thing, though with less edge. Appearing on Face the Nation on Sunday, she said that she would “absolutely” adhere to NATO’s Article V, the provision of mutual self-defense, should she be elected president. She also hailed NATO as “a success story for the last 75 years. But what bothers me about this is, don't take the side of a thug who kills his opponents. don't take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country and half-a-million people have died or been wounded because of Putin.”

The reactions in European capitals were equally sharp. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, called Trump’s statement “reckless” and said it would “serve only Putin’s interest.” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement saying that "any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US."

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Trump’s comments weren’t the only NATO-relevant developments this week. The Senate passed a bill, which Trump opposed, to provide military funding to Ukraine, as well as Israel and Taiwan. Stoltenberg announced that eighteen of NATO’s members would meet their pledge, made at the 2014 NATO summit, to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense—the highest number yet. Reports emerged that Russia intends to double the number of troops it stations along its border with the Baltic states and Finland, and to deploy a nuclear-armed weapon in space designed to destroy satellites.

Neither the criticisms nor the news developments prompted Trump to soften his views. Instead, he doubled down. On Sunday, he wrote on Truth Social in all caps: “No money in the form of foreign aid should be given to any country unless it is done as a loan, not just a giveaway.” On Wednesday night, he told another campaign rally in South Carolina: “I’ve been saying, ‘Look, if they’re not going to pay, we’re not going to protect, okay?”

Trump’s doubling down reflected his longstanding animus toward NATO. But it also reflected the fact that received almost no pushback from fellow Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did say: “I totally disagree with him. And it was extremely unhelpful.” But most Republican lawmakers either declined to comment or sought to explain Trump’s comments away. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida chalked Trump’s comments up to the fact that the former president “doesn’t talk like a traditional politician,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that “I think he’s trying to make a point. I’m not worried about it at all.”

But plenty of other people are worried, and rightly so. Words matter in politics. And the clear message this is that the U.S. security guarantee to Europe may not survive a Trump return to the White House. Optimists will see this prospect as spurring Europeans to provide their own defense against Russia. But the pessimists are more likely to be right that the steps Europe takes won’t come soon enough, be big enough, or coordinated enough to deter Russian aggression. And absent a U.S. security guarantee, Europe—and the United States—could re-live some of the most painful lessons of the twentieth century.

Campaign Update

Trump asked the Supreme Court on Monday to pause last week’s ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel that held he wasn’t entitled to blanket immunity for alleged crimes he committed as president. The brief contends that absent blanket immunity, “the President’s political opponents will seek to influence and control his or her decisions via effective extortion or blackmail with the threat, explicit or implicit, of indictment by a future, hostile Administration, for acts that do not warrant any such prosecution. This threat will hang like a millstone around every future President’s neck, distorting Presidential decision-making, undermining the President’s independence, and clouding the President’s ability.” Trump’s brief also argues that “conducting a months-long criminal trial of President Trump at the height of election season will radically disrupt President Trump’s ability to campaign against President Biden—which appears to be the whole point of the Special Counsel’s persistent demands for expedition.” Trump wants the Supreme Court to order that his claim of blanket immunity be heard by the full appeals court. That would further delay the start of his trial on federal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

On Wednesday, Special Prosecutor Jack Smith urged the Court to reject Trump’s request, saying that “Delay in the resolution of these charges threatens to frustrate the public interest in a speedy and fair verdict—a compelling interest in every criminal case and one that has unique national importance here, as it involves federal criminal charges against a former president for alleged criminal efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election, including through the use of official power.”

The effort to persuade Michigan Democrats angry with Biden’s support for Israel to vote Uncommitted in the state’s February 27 primary got help from a political group that Sen. Bernie Sanders established in 2016. Our Revolution announced on Wednesday that it would send emails to 87,000 Michigan voters encouraging them to vote Uncommitted in a bid to change U.S. policy on Gaza.

A super PAC ran an advertisement during the Super Bowl on Sunday night touting Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for president. The ad mimicked one that his uncle, John F. Kennedy, ran in his 1960 presidential campaign. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., subsequently apologized to his family members, most of whom oppose his presidential campaign, for the $7 million ad saying: “Federal rules prohibit Superpacs from consulting with me or my staff. I send you and your family my sincerest apologies. God bless you.” That didn’t stop the younger Kennedy from tweeting the ad.

Retiring West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced earlier today that he would not launch a third-party bid for president. He said that he didn't want to be a "deal-breaker" or a "spoiler" because "We’re on a real teetering situation here that could go either way. Democracy is at stake right now."

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Trump claimed at a campaign rally Wednesday night that “I will get the war between Russia and Ukraine settled... very quickly.” Trump also touted the fact that earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin had said that he preferred the “more experienced and more predictable” Biden as U.S. president. Despite the implicit dig in Putin’s endorsement, Trump insisted that “Russia has just given me a great compliment, actually.” He added that Putin “wants Biden because he's going to be given everything he wants, including Ukraine. He's gonna have his dream of getting Ukraine because of Biden ... The only president in the last five that hasn't given Russia anything is a president known as Donald J. Trump."

Hugh Hewitt asked Haley on Tuesday if she would have voted for the $95 billion package for Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine that had just passed the Senate. Her answer was equivocal:

I think we have to look at each of those separately. I don’t ever like when they like group a bunch of things together, because you can’t dissect it. The first thing I’ll say is I don’t believe we should ever give any country straight up cash, because you can’t follow it, and you can’t hold it accountable. I do think that supporting Ukraine with equipment and ammunition is preventing war, because Putin has made it very clear that once he takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. Those are NATO countries. That puts us at war. So helping Ukraine win this is preventing war. Israel, that is preventing a terrorist threat. You know, we know Israel is the tip of the spear when it comes to defeating terrorism. And so for us to have the backs of Israel, I think, is very, very important.

Haley took Biden to task later in the interview for warning Israel about launching an offensive against Rafah without having a clear plan to protect civilians: “I wish he would put as much energy into calling out Iran, calling out the Arab countries who support Iran, calling out Hamas for what they did.”

What the Pundits Are Saying

Most Americans think both Biden and Trump are too old to run for president, according to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll. The poll found that 86 percent of Americans think that the eighty-one-year-old Biden is too old to serve another term. Sixty-two percent think the same of Trump, who turns seventy-eight in four months.

Biden’s newfound focus on the Middle East in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel prompted a spate of appraisals in Foreign Policy. Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer reported that “the Biden administration is laying the groundwork for an ambitious grand bargain that would tie rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia to substantial steps toward Palestinian statehood, according to nine analysts and former U.S. government officials familiar with the plans. The long-shot diplomatic gamble could remake the Middle East and define U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy legacy, but it faces staggering challenges that many fear will be insurmountable.”

My CFR colleague Steven Cook argued that “Biden and his advisors, who have previously eschewed big projects aimed at transforming the Middle East, are about to bite off a lot more than they can chew, especially when it comes to building a Palestinian state, setting Washington up for yet another failure in the region.”

Matthew Duss, a former foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, wrote that “any serious effort to promote Palestinian liberation will require Biden to pressure Israel in a way he has thus far shown no willingness to do. There’s no getting around that. But it also requires the administration to see the current crisis not just as a challenge to its regional policy but to the entire “rules-based international order” that it claims to uphold.”

On other topics, AEI’s Danielle Pletka wondered whether Biden has a policy toward Russia. Indeed, in her view, “the Biden administration has been strangely reticent on the question of Russia’s leadership, and, indeed, the relationship it wants with Russia overall.” 

My CFR colleague Edward Alden worried that the political dysfunction evident in the failure of the Senate’s bipartisan border deal signals a coming “maelstrom for U.S. foreign policy” that will have “unpalatable” consequences for the rest of the world: “expensive and provocative rearmament in Europe and Japan, acceptance of expanding Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, and a global economy that will continue to fracture.”

The Campaign Schedule

The South Carolina Republican primary is eight days away (February 24, 2024).

The State of the Union address is twenty days away (March 7, 2024).

The start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee is 150 days away (July 15, 2024).

The start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is 185 days away (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 263 days away.

Inauguration Day is 339 days away.

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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