Former President Trump’s remarks about encouraging aggression toward “delinquent” NATO members are shining a light on divisions among Republicans looking to safeguard America’s commitments abroad and those backing the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Some Republicans have downplayed Trump’s remarks, which alarmed NATO’s chief and member states already raising concerns that a second Trump administration would seek to weaken the alliance.
“It’s all sarcasm,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said of Trump’s comments that he would “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” with NATO members who are delinquent in offering financial support to NATO.
“It’s all about paying the price. You know, most of ’em haven’t done that,” Tuberville added.
Other Republicans pushed back on Trump.
“I don’t agree by any means that we should turn away from our allies. That, number one, has never been done before, nor should be done,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who has recently been at odds with the former president about Senate border legislation.
“Obviously, everyone has an obligation to be able to fill their obligation, but to say, we’ll let you be killed if you don’t, is the wrong way to go.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also pushed back on the former president’s remarks.
“We shouldn’t encourage anything like that,” she said about Trump’s remarks concerning Russia.
“Obviously, the Europeans are our partners. We’ll continue to encourage them to contribute to NATO and do better,” she said.
Trump’s criticisms center on efforts to get NATO members to commit 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending — a goal NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at least half of the 31-member alliance are set to meet in 2024. That’s up from seven members in 2022.
It’s a long-standing issue for Trump, who during his presidency often pressed allies to meet the 2 percent figure.
Trump infused the issue with new controversy during a weekend rally in South Carolina when he told a story of an unidentified foreign leader questioning his threat not to defend members who do not hit the alliance’s defense spending targets. He said he told the leader he would “encourage” Russia to do whatever it wishes and recounted saying, “You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent.”
Last month, a senior European Union politician said that Trump, in a 2020 meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, threatened not to come to Europe’s defense if attacked.
Although lawmakers passed in December a law barring any president from withdrawing from NATO without the consent of Congress, the text does not address a host of other actions the president can take that could weaken and undermine the alliance.
“What we have prevented with the language, which I think is important, is a formal withdrawal from NATO … but the president would have so many different levers, our participation could be diminished significantly,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There are so many factors that contribute to our participation in NATO and they generally run through the [Department of Defense] and the president of the United States, that just shutting down or not staffing munitions, removing troops from Europe, all those things are possible.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said additional guardrails may be necessary given Trump’s comments “because we can’t afford a president who insults our allies and gives credence to our enemies.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who authored the legislation blocking a presidential withdrawal from NATO without the consent of Congress, rejected that lawmakers need to put guardrails around U.S. commitments.
“He [Trump] did not say anything prospective. What he talked about was, he told a story, an analogy, whatever you want to call it about the way he approached it in the past. At no point did he say ‘and I will not defend countries in the future,’ anything of that nature. That’s how it’s being couched, but that’s not what he said.”
Trump’s remarks about NATO come amid a divide in the GOP over how to handle aid to Ukraine.
The Senate is close to passing new aid to Ukraine as part of a package, but it is not clear whether it will receive a vote in the House, where the GOP is badly divided on the issue. Trump has at best been cool to new support for Ukraine.
Experts look at the issues and see signs the GOP is embracing Trump’s America First agenda.
“I think this is a resurrection of the old, isolationist wing of the party. I still think the internationalist Republicans are dominant, but that’s going to be a struggle,” said Thomas Schwartz, professor of history, political science and European studies at Vanderbilt University.
The White House slammed Trump’s comments, calling them “appalling and unhinged” and saying that encouraging invasions “endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said “NATO is now more relevant, stronger, bigger than it’s ever been before” under Biden.
“That’s what the American president ought to be about, reinforcing alliances and partnerships and sending a strong signal, particularly to NATO allies, about how seriously we take our Article 5 commitments,” Kirby said Monday.
Aside from the public reaction in the U.S., Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, argued the reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Trump is the most important.
“The problem with Trump’s comments is not only that they gave Putin succor and hope, about Ukraine and Europe in general, but they could also lead to deterrence failure — and war — if Putin decides to try his luck given Trump’s encouragement,” O’Hanlon said.
“In other words, it doesn’t really matter what other Republicans think. It matters what Putin thinks and how he decides to act,” he added. “Trump’s comments are therefore playing with fire whether the GOP thinks so or not.”
Updated at 4:21 p.m.