Once-critical Republican officials support Trump after NATO comments

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After Donald J. Trump suggested that he had threatened to encourage Russia to attack “rogue” NATO allies, the response among many Republican officials has revolved around three themes: expressions of support, looks of aversion or even cheerful indifference.

Republican Party elites have become so adept at deflecting even Trump's most outrageous statements that they quickly rejected this one. Trump, the party's likely presidential nominee, had claimed at a Saturday rally in South Carolina that he once threatened a NATO government to live up to its financial commitments, or else he would encourage Russia to “do whatever it wants.” “with that country. .

In a phone interview Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed surprised to even be asked about Trump's comment.

“Give me a break, I mean, it's Trump,” Graham said. “All I can say is that while Trump was president, no one invaded anyone. “I think the point here is, in its own way, to get people to pay.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, the top GOP official on the Senate Intelligence Committee, took a matter-of-fact tone when he explained on CNN on Sunday why it didn't bother him in the slightest.

“He told the story of how he used influence to get people to take initiative and become more active in NATO,” Rubio said on “State of the Union,” rationalizing and sanitizing Trump's comments as simply another way colorful version of what other American presidents have done in urging NATO members to spend more on their own defense. “I don't have any worries, because he has been president before. I know exactly what he has done and will do with the NATO alliance. But there has to be an alliance. “This is not about defending the United States with a bunch of small 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 comment – a new version of a story he has been telling for years – quickly inflamed what were already serious doubts in Europe about Trump's commitment to NATO's collective defense provisions. That provision, known as Article 5, states that an armed attack against any member “shall be considered an attack against all of them.”

Trump has been using his power over the Republican Party to try to kill recent bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to send Ukraine more weapons and resources vital to its fight against Russia. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but helping Ukraine preserve its independence has become the alliance's defining mission since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia began his military invasion in February 2022. And where Trump could land in an engagement with Ukraine has been, for example, the international community and foreign policy experts become a kind of surrogate for how NATO, America's most important military alliance, will approach any potential second term.

Officials in smaller, more vulnerable NATO countries are especially concerned because Trump has already suggested that it is not in the U.S. national interest to go to war with Russia to defend a small nation like, say, Montenegro.

The international reaction to Trump's comments on Saturday included a rare public rebuke from Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO. Stoltenberg said that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the United States, and puts American and European soldiers at greater risk.”

The defense of Trump by several Republican officials like Graham reflected the trajectory of a party that the former president has largely bent to his will.

Eight years ago, when Trump was in the midst of his presidential campaign, Graham would have given a very different answer. In that campaign, Graham (initially one of Trump's primary competitors, whom Trump quickly defeated) saw himself as a defender of the internationalist values ​​of the Republican Party against what he perceived as the grave threat of Trump's isolationism. . .

As a companion of the late Republican hawk and war hero, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Graham traveled the country warning anyone who would listen about the dangers of Trump. But after Trump won the presidency, Graham set out to become a close friend and advisor and was welcomed into Trump's inner circle. Many others followed a similar path.

In 2016, Rubio, another foreign policy hawk who ran against Trump for the party's nomination, called Trump a “conman” and warned how dangerous he would be if he were trusted with the nation's nuclear codes. But after Trump won, he put those feelings aside, became friends with Trump, and is now among a handful of Republicans vying to be his running mate.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the most hawkish Republicans on national defense, suggested that European nations in the alliance should do more to sustain their own defenses against Russian incursions.

“NATO countries that don't spend enough on defense, like Germany, are already encouraging Russian aggression and President Trump is simply ringing the warning bell,” 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 Trump administration national security and foreign policy officials declined to speak about an anecdote Trump told about threatening the head of state of a NATO member nation with encouraging Russian aggression. But they said they did not remember such a meeting taking place.

Trump likes outright lies when telling stories to look like a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned that Trump would withdraw the United States from NATO in a second term, said he had never heard Trump threaten another country's leader with encouraging a Russian invasion.

Another former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming Trump, delicately described the story as “hyperbole.” Yet another former official, H.R. McMaster, Trump's second national security adviser and a retired Army lieutenant general, gave a one-word assessment of Trump's comments: “Irresponsible.”

Trump often praises Putin (he has described the invasion of Ukraine as the work of a “genius”) and has long admired him as a “strong” leader.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump asked Russia to “find” emails that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential candidate and a target of Putin, had deleted from her private email server. He has suggested that Putin is no different, morally, from American leaders. When former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly pressed Trump shortly after taking office about his admiration for Putin, saying the Russian leader “is a killer,” Trump responded, “What do you think?” Is our country so innocent?

But as president, Trump's policies toward Russia were sometimes harsher than those of his predecessor, a point Trump's allies highlight when they dismiss statements like Saturday's as rhetorical flourishes. Trump's allies, who say he would not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that in his first term he approved sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, something President Obama had not done after Russia seized Crimea in 2014. .

As he runs to retake the White House (and as polls suggest he has a good chance of doing so), Trump has been coy about his intentions for NATO. His campaign website contains a single cryptic sentence: “We must finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reassessing the purpose and mission of NATO.”

When asked what that means, Trump and his team declined to elaborate.

Trump has focused in private conversations on treating foreign aid like loans, something he has posted about on social media, as Senate Republicans tried again Sunday to pass a relief package after Trump helped thwart their efforts. previous. But the comment about Russia seemed to take most of his team by surprise.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, when asked to explain the former president's statements (including whether it was an invitation to new aggression by Russia) did not directly address the question.

“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 more death and destruction under Biden,” Miller said. “President Trump got our allies to increase their spending on NATO by demanding they pay, but Joe Biden let them take advantage of the American taxpayer again. “When you don't pay your defense costs, you're not surprised there's more war.”

Spending by NATO countries on their own defense grew during the Trump administration, but expanded by an even greater amount during the Biden administration, after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who served in the Trump administration, has remained close to Trump and who has also been outspoken about the need to defend Ukraine, spoke at the request of the Trump campaign and said he did not believe… Trump was opening the door to new aggression.

Trump, Kellogg said, has a “record of deterrence.”

He added, “I really think he's on to something,” saying he believes Trump's goal is to get NATO members to focus on Article 3 of NATO's founding treaty, which calls on nations to develop their capabilities. individually and collectively to avoid an armed attack.

“I don't think it's any encouragement,” Kellogg said, because “we know what he means when he says it.”



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