After Donald J. Trump suggested that he had threatened to encourage Russia to attack “criminal” NATO allies, three themes stood out in the response of many Republican officials: expressions of support, aversion, or even cheerful indifference.
Republican Party elites are so adept at deflecting even Mr. Trump’s most outrageous statements that they quickly shot them down. Mr Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, had claimed at a rally on Saturday in South Carolina that he had once threatened a NATO government to default on its financial obligations – otherwise he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to that country want”. .
In a phone interview Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed surprised to even be asked about Trump’s remark.
“Give me a break — I mean, it’s Trump,” Mr. Graham said. “All I can say is when Trump was president, no one attacked anyone. I think in its own way this is about getting people to pay.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican official on the Senate Intelligence Committee, struck a matter-of-fact tone as he explained on CNN Sunday why it didn’t bother him at all.
“He told the story about how he used leverage to get people to get involved and become more active in NATO,” Mr. Rubio said in “State of the Union,” rationalizing and sanitizing Mr. Trump’s comments as just more this is a colorful version of what other U.S. presidents have done when they pushed NATO members to spend more on their own defense. “I’m not worried because he’s been president before. I know exactly what he has done and will do with the NATO alliance. But there has to be an alliance. It’s not America’s defense with a bunch of little junior partners.”
Mr. Trump’s comments on 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 been telling for years – quickly rekindled already strong doubts in Europe about Trump’s commitment to NATO’s collective defense. This provision, known as Article 5, states that an armed attack on one member “shall be considered an attack against all.”
Mr. Trump has used his power over Republicans to thwart recent bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to send more weapons and vital resources to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but helping Ukraine maintain its independence has become the alliance’s defining mission since Russian President Vladimir V. Putin began his military invasion in February 2022. The international community and foreign policy experts are becoming a kind of proxy for how he will deal with NATO, America’s main military alliance, in a possible second term.
Officials from smaller and more vulnerable NATO countries are particularly concerned because Mr. Trump has already suggested that it is not in America’s national interest to go to war with Russia to defend a small nation such as Montenegro.
The international reaction to Mr. Trump’s comments on Saturday included a rare public rebuke from Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general. Mr Stoltenberg said: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our overall security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”
The defense of Mr. Trump by several Republican officials like Mr. Graham reflected the evolution 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 — originally one of Mr. Trump’s competitors in the primary, whom Mr. Trump quickly defeated — saw himself as a defender of the Republican Party’s internationalist values against what he perceived as an acute threat from Mr. Trump’s isolationism.
As a wingman for the late Republican hawk and war hero Sen. 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 set out 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 competing against Mr. Trump for the party’s nomination, called Mr. Trump a “fraud” and warned how dangerous he would be if trusted with the country’s nuclear laws. But after Mr. Trump won, he put those feelings aside, became friends with Mr. Trump and is now among a handful of Republicans vying for his vice presidential nomination.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the toughest Republicans on national defense, suggested that European nations in the alliance needed to do more to maintain their own defenses against Russian incursions.
“NATO countries like Germany that don’t spend enough on defense are already encouraging Russian aggression and President Trump is just ringing the alarm bell,” 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 the anecdote Mr. Trump told about threatening the head of a NATO member state with encouraging Russian aggression. However, they said they could recall that no such meeting actually took place.
Mr. Trump loves blatant falsehoods as he spreads stories to portray himself as a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser John Bolton, who has warned that Mr. Trump would withdraw the U.S. from NATO in a second term, said he had never heard of Mr. Trump threatening the leader of another country that he would launch a Russian invasion support financially.
Another former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering Mr. Trump, cautiously described the story as an “exaggeration.” Yet another former official — H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s second national security adviser and a retired Army lieutenant general — gave Mr. Trump’s comments one word assessment: “Irresponsible.”
Mr Trump often praises Mr Putin – he has called the invasion of Ukraine the work of a “genius” – and has long admired him as a “strong” leader.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump asked Russia to “find” emails that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential candidate and a target of Mr. Putin, had deleted from her private email server. He has suggested that Mr. Putin is no different morally from American leaders. When Bill O’Reilly, a former Fox News host, pressed Mr. Trump shortly after he took office about his admiration for Mr. Putin and said the Russian leader was “a murderer,” Mr. Trump responded: “What do you think?” Land so innocent?”
But as president, Mr. Trump’s policies toward Russia have sometimes been tougher than those of his predecessor — a point Mr. Trump’s allies emphasize when they dismiss statements like Saturday’s as rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Trump’s allies, who say he would not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that in his first term he approved the supply of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, something President Obama did after Russia’s occupation of Crimea had not done so in 2014.
As he races to retake the White House — and polls show he has a good chance of doing so — Mr. Trump has been cautious about his intentions for NATO. His campaign website contains a single cryptic sentence: “We must complete the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reassessing the purpose and mission of NATO.”
When pressed on what that means, Mr. Trump and his team declined to elaborate.
Mr. Trump focused in private conversations on treating foreign aid as loans, which he reported on social media, as Senate Republicans again tried to pass an aid package on Sunday after Mr. Trump backed up their earlier efforts. But the Russia comment seemed to surprise most of his team.
When Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, was asked to explain the former president’s comments — including whether they were an invitation for new aggression from Russia — he did not directly address the question a.
“Democrats and media hawks seem to have forgotten that we had four years of peace and prosperity under President Trump, but Europe experienced death and destruction under Obama-Biden and now even more death and destruction under Biden,” Mr. Miller said. “President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by asking them to pay, but Joe Biden let them go back to taking advantage of the American taxpayer. If you don’t pay your defense spending, you can’t be surprised that there’s more war.”
NATO countries’ spending on their own defense rose during the Trump administration, but it rose even more sharply during the Biden administration, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who worked in the Trump administration, remains close to Mr. Trump and has also been outspoken about the need to defend Ukraine. He spoke at the request of the Trump campaign and said he did not believe Mr. Trump. Trump opened the door to new aggression.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Kellogg said, has a “track record of deterrence.”
He added: “I really think he’s on to something,” and said that he believes Mr. Trump’s goal is to get NATO members to move toward Article 3 of the NATO founding treaty focus, which calls on nations to build up their individual and collective defenses against an armed attack.
“I don’t think it’s an encouragement,” Mr. Kellogg said, because “we know what he means when he says it.”