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Trump threatens NATO, says he’s willing to ‘encourage’ Russia

Donald Trump's rhetoric about NATO and Russian aggression has taken an even more radical turn. Republicans who know better are shrugging their shoulders.

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For much of the 20th century, the United States’ allies abroad had no reason to think twice about our commitment to NATO. No matter which candidates or parties were ascendant, the world knew that the White House would be steadfast in its support of the alliance and its members.

Then Donald Trump took office.

As regular readers know, the Republican reportedly told his team “several” times that he was prepared to withdraw from the alliance. By all accounts, it was a plan he intended to follow through on in a second term. Since leaving office, the former president has said that he was prepared to ignore the treaty’s Article 5 commitment, and has continued to criticize the alliance and its members.

As recently as a month ago, Fox News asked Trump whether he’d be committed to NATO if given a second term. He replied that it would “depend“ on whether he was satisfied that U.S. allies were “treating us properly.” Two weeks later, the presumptive GOP nominee insisted that NATO allies wouldn’t “be there” for the United States if we were attacked.

But as radical as Trump’s rhetoric has been, he’s still capable of reaching new depths. NBC News reported over the weekend:

Former President Donald Trump said Saturday he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if it attacked a NATO country that didn’t pay enough for defense. ... The comments will do little to ease concerns in Europe about U.S. dependability, with military aid that Ukraine desperately needs held up in Congress and the front-runner for the GOP nomination now reiterating his long-standing skepticism of America’s historical commitments to its allies.

In context, the former president, while headlining a rally in South Carolina, reflected on a conversation he claims to have had with the leader of a “big country.” This leader, according to Trump’s version of events, asked whether the United States would honor its NATO obligations in the event of a Russian attack.

The Republican went on to claim that he believed this “big country” was “delinquent” when it came to defense spending. “No, I would not protect you,” Trump concluded. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”

To put it mildly, the comments were not well received among those who actually care about the future of the most successful strategic alliance in modern world history.

The Biden White House, for example, said Trump’s latest comments were “appalling and unhinged.” Spokesperson Andrew Bates added in a written statement, “Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged — and it endangers American national security, global stability and our economy at home.”

International observers were similarly incensed. Leaders in Germany and Poland, for example, wasted little time in criticizing Trump’s comments, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement, “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. I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally.”

Stepping back, there are a handful of angles to this that are worth keeping in mind.

First, Trump has a strange habit of sharing the details of conversations that only occurred in his imagination, and there’s no reason to assume that the exchange with the leader of a “big country” actually occurred.

Second, every time he talks about NATO members possibly being “delinquent,” we’re reminded that Trump, even now, still doesn’t fully understand the basics of the alliance’s finances.

Third, I realize there’s a newfound fixation on the fact that President Joe Biden is three years older than his likely GOP rival, but Trump is effectively telling the American electorate that he’s prepared to allow — if not “encourage” — a destabilizing war in Europe. Those who think the incumbent’s age and occasional gaffes are more important than the Republican’s radical foreign policy vision might want to reconsider their priorities.

Fourth, I’m mindful of the fact that Trump has made similar comments before, but the fact that Trump was willing to say, out loud and in public, that he was prepared to “encourage” Russians to “do whatever the hell they want” to our allies is qualitatively different and more radical than his earlier rhetoric.

But even if we put all of these relevant details aside, perhaps most striking of all is the fact many congressional Republicans — who know better, and who’ve traditionally supported NATO — simply shrugged their shoulders in response to Trump’s rhetoric. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who recently co-authored a policy that would make it more difficult for future presidents to abandon the alliance, actually defended the former president, saying his party’s likely nominee “doesn’t talk like a traditional politician.”

There’s some truth in that. “Traditional” American leaders don’t threaten our allies and encourage our enemies.

The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which tends to be closely aligned with GOP politics, concluded that Trump’s rhetoric “will please Vladimir Putin.” Evidently, the Republican Party doesn’t care.

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