The Republican Party in the Trump era is defined by attrition. Trump has spent more than eight years gradually and systematically upping the provocations and counting on his allies to lose the will to fight him, which they routinely do.
Few issues epitomize that like NATO.
Trump this weekend offered his most provocative statement to date on the alliance, indicating he would actually “encourage” Russia to attack NATO allies who don’t pony up enough money for defense.
“One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ ” Trump said at a rally Saturday in South Carolina. “I said, ‘You didn’t pay. You’re delinquent.’ He said, ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”
The comments build on Trump’s history of distancing himself from NATO and its mutual defense requirements:
In 2016, he said NATO was “obsolete” and questioned whether it was worth the investment. He suggested the United States might not defend Baltic countries, despite the requirement in Article 5 of NATO’s charter for allies to treat an attack on one alliance member as an attack on all.
In 2017, he conspicuously declined to affirm Article 5.
In 2020, he significantly reduced the American troop presence in Germany while making clear it was punishment for Germany’s allegedly insufficient investment in defense.
And in 2022, he said publicly that as president he had explicitly threatened not to defend NATO allies from Russia.
And now Trump not only says he wouldn’t defend countries that don’t pay enough, but that he would actually encourage Russia to go after them.
The comments have drawn a handful of rebukes from prominent Republicans. But more telling are the shrugs – and even the defenses – they have elicited from a handful of prominent GOP foreign policy hawks and NATO boosters who once objected to this kind of thing.
Republican hawks once fought back strongly against Trump on NATO – and were actually willing to buck him on foreign policy issues they decided were just that important. But as they have on many issues, they seem to have lost the will to fight their party’s Trumpian drift.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in 2016 that Trump’s comments had made Russian President Vladimir Putin “a very happy man” and that Trump was “essentially telling the Russians and other bad actors that the United States is not fully committed to supporting the NATO alliance.”
On Sunday, Graham said he was “not worried” about Trump’s latest comments “at all.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in 2016 responded to Trump’s comments by saying the United States must abide by Article 5 and urged Americans to “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, Cotton said NATO countries that don’t pay their share are “already encouraging Russian aggression, and President Trump is simply ringing the warning bell.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) responded to Trump’s 2018 comments by repeatedly insisting that Congress would prevent Trump from pulling out of NATO.
On Sunday, Tillis said Trump should not have said what he did, “but also I don’t believe it’s something that he honestly believes.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2018 said it was okay to call for other countries to pay. But Trump went too far by “questioning the value of the alliance,” Rubio suggested then. “The end of #NATO would be a dream come true for #Putin,” he tweeted at the time.
On Sunday, Rubio said he had “zero” concerns about Trump’s latest comments and ventured that he didn’t mean them. “We’ve already been through this,” Rubio said. “You would think people would’ve figured it out by now.”
The overarching thrust of these statements is that Trump is just saying things to put pressure on NATO allies. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) urged people to “take everything that he says seriously, but not literally.”
But we’ve also seen the peril of assuming Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. And Congress has seemingly taken Trump pretty literally on NATO before, going so far as to pass legislation to guard against his impulses.
Rubio and Graham were part of a yearslong effort to pass a bill to prevent a president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO – an effort that ultimately succeeded just two months ago. The Senate in 2018 passed a bill reaffirming support for NATO in an unambiguous rebuke to Trump. The following year, the House passed the “NATO Support Act,” which aimed to prevent a president from using any funds “to take any action to withdraw” the United States from NATO.
All of these were clearly about Trump, as there’s really no need for them absent a fear that Trump might actually follow through.
Many of those who know Trump’s foreign policy best seem to be concerned; they have cautioned that he is actually quite serious about pulling out of NATO, which Trump as president reportedly spoke about privately. European allies are concerned about it. And NATO’s secretary general is now raising serious concerns just two weeks after downplaying Trump’s NATO intentions. Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday that Trump’s comment “undermines all of our security … and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”
It’s entirely possible that this is a ploy by Trump. But the problem with taking him seriously rather than literally is that sometimes he means it, and sometimes it’s part of a years-long effort to chip away at his party’s resistance to his impulses.
The GOP as a party has already trended against NATO with plenty of unsubtle nudging by Trump. It’s reasonable to conclude that responses like these invite him to keep pushing.