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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

GOP officials, once critical, stand by Trump after NATO comments

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to reporters outside of the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Rubio strongly defended former President Donald J. Trump in an interview on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)

By Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan

After Donald Trump suggested he had threatened to encourage Russia to attack “delinquent” NATO allies, the response among many Republican officials has struck three themes — expressions of support, gaze aversion or even cheerful indifference.

Republican Party elites have become so practiced at deflecting even Trump’s most outrageous statements that they quickly batted this one away. Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, had claimed at a Saturday rally in South Carolina that he once threatened a NATO government to meet its financial commitments — or else he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to that country.

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,” Graham said. “All I can say is while Trump was president nobody invaded anybody. I think the point here is to, in his way, to get people to pay.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican Party’s top-ranking official on the Senate Intelligence Committee, struck a matter-of-fact tone as he explained on CNN on Sunday why he was not bothered in the least.

“He told the story about how he used leverage to get people to step up to the plate and become more active in NATO,” Rubio said on “State of the Union,” rationalizing and sanitizing Trump’s comments as just a more colorful version of what other U.S. presidents have done in urging NATO members to spend more on their own defense. “I have zero concern, 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 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 remark — a new version of a story he has been telling for years — quickly inflamed in Europe what were already severe doubts about Trump’s commitment to NATO’s collective-defense provision. That provision, known as Article 5, states that an armed attack on any member “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Trump has been using his power over the GOP to try to kill recent bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to send Ukraine more weapons and vital resources for its fight against Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but helping Ukraine preserve its independence has become the alliance’s defining mission since President Vladimir Putin of Russia began his military invasion in February 2022. And where Trump might land on a commitment to Ukraine has, for the international community and foreign-policy experts, become something of a stand-in 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 especially worried because Trump has already suggested that it’s not in America’s national interest to get in a war with Russia to defend a tiny nation like, say, Montenegro.

The international reaction to Trump’s Saturday remarks included a rare public rebuke from Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general. Stoltenberg said that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

The defense of Trump by several Republican officials such as 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 thick of his first campaign for president, Graham would have given a very different response. In that campaign, Graham — initially one of Trump’s competitors in the primary, whom Trump quickly vanquished — saw himself as a defender of the Republican Party’s internationalist values against what he perceived as the acute threat of Trump’s isolationism.

As a wingman of the late Republican hawk and war hero Sen. 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 about becoming a friend and close adviser and was welcomed into Trump’s inner circle. Many others followed a similar path.

In 2016, Rubio, another foreign policy hawk who competed against Trump for the party’s nomination, called Trump a “con man” and warned how dangerous he would be if entrusted with the nation’s nuclear codes. But after Trump won, he put those feelings aside, became friendly with Trump and is now among a handful of Republicans in contention to be his running mate.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, among the most hawkish Republicans on national defense, suggested European nations in the alliance needed to 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 national security and foreign policy officials in the Trump administration declined to speak about the anecdote that Trump told about threatening a NATO member nation’s head of state with encouraging Russian aggression. But they said they recalled no such meeting actually taking place.

Trump is fond of outright falsehoods in relaying stories to make himself look like a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser John Bolton, who has warned that Trump would withdraw the U.S. from NATO in a second term, said he had never heard Trump threaten another country’s leader that he would encourage a Russian invasion.

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.

But as president, Trump’s policies toward Russia were sometimes tougher than his predecessor’s — a point that Trump’s allies highlight when they dismiss statements such as Saturday’s as rhetorical flourishes. Trump’s allies, who claim he would not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that in his first term he approved sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, which Obama had not done after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.

As he runs to take back 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 have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”

When pressed on what that means, Trump and his team have refused to elaborate.

Trump has been focused in private conversations about treating foreign aid as loans, something he has posted about on social media, as Senate Republicans tried again Sunday to pass an aid package, after Trump helped tank their earlier efforts. But the Russia comment appeared to catch most on his team by surprise.

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

“Democrat and media pearl-clutchers 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 NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer. When you don’t pay your defense spending, you can’t be surprised that you get more war.”

NATO countries’ spending on their own defense grew during the Trump administration, but it has expanded by an even larger amount during the Biden administration, after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who worked in the Trump administration, has remained close to Trump and who has also been outspoken on the need to defend Ukraine, spoke at the request of the Trump campaign, saying that he did not believe Trump was opening the door to fresh aggression.

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

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