Donald Trump has made some news that is reverberating around the world.
It wasn’t him saying – after that incredible Super Bowl comeback by Kansas City – that he signed a law boosting earnings for musicians so Taylor Swift shouldn’t endorse Joe Biden (also “I like her boyfriend, Travis”).
It wasn’t “we will throw off the sick political class that hates our country, we will rout the Fake News Media, we will Drain the Swamp.”
It’s not that he told a South Carolina rally that “Biden’s thugs are still trying to put me in jail on fake charges for crimes that they openly admit that Crooked Joe did. He actually did these crimes” – while adding “I’m not looking for anything to happen to this guy.”
No, it’s about NATO.
Trump recalled a conversation with the president “of a big country,” who he says asked him if they didn’t increase their defense contribution to the North Atlantic alliance “and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?”
Sharing his response at the rally, Trump claims he said: “You didn’t pay. You’re delinquent… No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”
The idea that Vladimir Putin could do “whatever the hell they want” set off alarm bells, not only among foreign policy officials in Europe but in much of the mainstream media here at home. One potential impact would be on Ukraine, with Trump having declined to endorse more military aid to that weakened country, which would allow Russia’s unprovoked invasion to succeed in either keeping its territorial gains along the eastern border or capturing the entire sovereign nation.
And yet there is further evidence, as if any were needed, that the GOP is now Trump’s party. Some of the biggest Republican hawks, who staunchly supported NATO in the past, say they have no problem with the former president’s remarks.
As the Washington Post points out, Lindsey Graham said when he ran for president in 2016 that Trump’s comments had made Putin a “very happy man.”
On Sunday, the senator said he was “not worried” about Trump’s latest remarks “at all.”
Tom Cotton, another leading hawk, said in 2016 that America must “make sure that we stand by NATO and we stand for countries like Ukraine and Georgia” who face “Russian aggression, and recognize Vladimir Putin as the adversary he is.”
On Sunday, the senator said NATO countries not paying their full share are “already encouraging Russian aggression, and President Trump is simply ringing the warning bell.”
Marco Rubio said in 2018 that Trump went too far by “questioning the value of the alliance,” tweeting: “The end of #NATO would be a dream come true for #Putin.”
On Sunday, the senator said he had “zero” concerns about Trump’s latest comments and suggested he didn’t mean them: “We’ve already been through this. “You would think people would’ve figured it out by now.”
And here’s the kicker: Rubio and Graham pushed through a bill barring any president from withdrawing from NATO. I wonder who they might have had in mind?
Look, I get it. This is how Trump negotiates. During his first term he regularly questioned the value of the NATO alliance as a way of getting some country to keep their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, with some success. It’s an approach he honed as a businessman when he would threaten to walk away from a deal unless certain conditions were met.
But when Trump took office with little experience in foreign policy, he was talked out of any withdrawal by such retired generals as Jim Mattis and John Kelly.
The New York Times reports this anecdote:
“Soon after former President Donald J. Trump took office, his staff explained how NATO’s mutual defense obligations worked.
“‘You mean, if Russia attacked Lithuania, we would go to war with Russia?’ he responded. ‘That’s crazy.’ Mr. Trump has never believed in the fundamental one-for-all-and-all-for-one concept of the Atlantic alliance.”
But Trump has made clear that in a second term he would surround himself with loyalists who would not attempt to stop such decisions.
Senior adviser Jason Miller says Biden has reversed Trump’s approach to NATO:
“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.”
Much of the media are leading the charge on NATO. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour called Trump’s latest comments “insane.”
It’s also true that top European officials are being quoted on the record as criticizing Trump’s language. They would be irresponsible if they didn’t start plotting a Plan B.
The crux of the argument is that the alliance created in the wake of World War II has worked well in deterring war and doesn’t need to be fixed. I happen to be in that camp – and the only time the mutual defense pact has been invoked was when our allies aided us after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yet it’s also true that Trump is well practiced in making seemingly over-the-top pronouncements that give him more leverage.
Footnote: Trump now says on Truth Social that “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.”