G.O.P. Officials, Once Critical, Stand by Trump After NATO Comments

After Donald J. Trump suggested he threatened to encourage Russia to attack “delinquent” NATO allies, the response from many Republican officials centered on three themes: expressions of support, dislike gaze or even joyful indifference.

Republican Party elites have become so accustomed to deflecting even Mr. Trump's most outrageous statements that they quickly dismissed this one. Mr. Trump, the party's likely presidential candidate, said at a rally in South Carolina on Saturday that he once threatened a NATO government to honor its financial commitments – or he would encourage Russia to “do what she wants” to this country. .

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed surprised to be asked about Mr. Trump's remark.

“Give me a break — I mean, it’s Trump,” Mr. Graham said. “All I can say is that when Trump was president, no one invaded anyone. I think the goal here is, in its own way, to make people pay.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, struck a neutral tone when he explained on CNN Sunday why he wasn't bothered at all.

“He talked about how he used his influence to get people to take their part and become more active in NATO,” Mr. Rubio said on “State of the Union,” rationalizing and purifying Mr. Trump's comments as simply another argument. A colorful version of what other US presidents have done in urging NATO members to spend more on their own defense. “I have no concerns, because he has already been president. I know exactly what he has done and what he will do with the NATO alliance. But we need an alliance. This is not the American defense with a group of small junior partners.

Mr. Trump's comments at the rally 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 already serious doubts in Europe about Mr. Trump's commitment to NATO's collective defense provisions. This provision, known as Article 5, states that an armed attack on one member “shall be considered an attack on all.”

Mr. Trump used his power over the GOP to try to kill recent bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to send Ukraine more weapons and resources vital to its fight against Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but helping Ukraine preserve its independence has become the alliance's defining mission since Russian President Vladimir V. Putin began his military invasion in February 2022. And where Mr. Trump might end up with a commitment to Ukraine, for example the international community and foreign policy experts, become something of a stand-in for how he will approach NATO, the most important military alliance of the United States, during a possible second term.

Officials from smaller, more vulnerable NATO countries are particularly concerned because Mr. Trump has already suggested that it is not in the U.S. national interest to engage in war with Russia to defend a small nation like, for example, Montenegro.

International reaction to Mr. Trump's remarks on Saturday included a rare public rebuke from Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general. Mr. Stoltenberg said that “any suggestion that allies will not defend themselves undermines our security as a whole, including that of the United States, and places American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

The defense of Mr. Trump by several Republican officials like Mr. Graham reflects the trajectory of a party that the former president largely bent to his will.

Eight years ago, when Mr. Trump was in the thick of his first presidential campaign, Mr. Graham would have given a very different answer. During that campaign, Mr. Graham — initially one of Mr. Trump's competitors in the primary, whom Mr. Trump quickly defeated — saw himself as a defender of the Republican Party's internationalist values ​​against what he perceived as the acute threat of Mr. Trump’s isolationism. .

As wingman to the late Republican hawk and war hero, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Graham traveled the country warning anyone who would listen about the dangers Mr. Trump posed. But after Mr. Trump won the presidency, Mr. Graham began to become a friend and close adviser and was welcomed into Mr. Trump's inner circle. Many others have followed a similar path.

In 2016, Mr. Rubio, another foreign policy hawk who competed with Mr. Trump for the party nomination, called Mr. Trump a “crook” and warned that dangerous he would be if he were entrusted with the country's nuclear codes. But after Mr. Trump's victory, he put those feelings aside, befriended Mr. Trump and is now one of a handful of Republicans vying to be his running mate.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the most hawkish Republicans on national defense, suggested that European countries in the alliance need to do more to maintain their own defenses against Russian incursions.

“NATO countries that are not spending enough on defense, like Germany, are already encouraging Russian aggression and President Trump is only sounding the alarm,” Cotton said in a statement. interview. “It is strength, not weakness, that 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 Mr. Trump told about the threat he made against the head of state of a NATO member country by encouraging Russian aggression. But they said they did not recall such a meeting taking place.

Mr. Trump likes outright lies when he spins stories to make himself seem like a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned that Mr. Trump would withdraw the United States from NATO in a second term, said he had never heard Mr. Trump threaten the leader of another country to encourage a Russian invasion.

Another former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming Mr. Trump, delicately called the story “hyperbole.” Another former official — H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump's second national security adviser and a retired Army lieutenant general — assessed Mr. Trump's comments in one word: “Irresponsible.”

Mr. Trump often praises Mr. Putin – he described the invasion of Ukraine as the work of a “genius» – and has long admired him as a “strong” leader.

During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called on Russia to “find” emails that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential candidate and a target of Mr. Putin, had deleted from her private email server. He suggested that Mr. Putin was no different, morally, from American leaders. When Bill O'Reilly, a former Fox News host, pressed Mr. Trump shortly after taking office to express his admiration for Mr. Putin, saying the Russian leader “is a killer,” Mr. .Trump responded: “What, do you think? is our country so innocent?

But as president, Mr. Trump's policies toward Russia were at times tougher than those of his predecessor — a point Mr. Trump's allies emphasize when they reject statements such as Saturday's as rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Trump's allies, who say he would not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that during his first term he approved sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, which the president Obama did not do so after Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014.

As he races to retake the White House — and as polls suggest he has a good chance of doing so — Mr. Trump has been coy about his intentions for NATO. His campaign website contains a single enigmatic sentence: “We must complete the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reassessing NATO's purpose and mission.”

When asked what that meant, Mr. Trump and his team declined to elaborate.

Mr. Trump focused his private conversations on treating foreign aid as a loan, a topic he posted on social media, as Senate Republicans tried again Sunday to pass a package aid, after Mr. Trump helped put the brakes on their earlier efforts. But Russia's comment seemed to surprise most of his team.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump's campaign, when asked to explain the former president's statements – including whether they were an invitation for further aggression by of Russia – did not directly address the issue.

“The Democrats and the media 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 even more death and destruction under Biden,” Mr. Miller said. “President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay, but Joe Biden is back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer. When you don't pay for your defense spending, you can't be surprised to have more wars.”

Spending by NATO countries on their own defense increased under the Trump administration, but it increased even more under the Biden administration, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who worked in the Trump administration, remained close to Mr. Trump and who has also been outspoken about the need to defend Ukraine, spoke at the request of the Trump campaign, saying he didn't believe Mr. Trump. Trump opened the door to new aggression.

Mr. Trump, Mr. Kellogg said, has a “history of deterrence.”

He added: “I definitely think he's on to something,” saying he believes Mr. Trump's goal is to get NATO members to focus on Article 3 of the treaty. founder of NATO, which calls on nations to strengthen their individual and collective capabilities to avoid disasters. an armed attack.

“I don’t think it’s an encouragement at all,” Mr. Kellogg said, because “we know what he means when he says it.”

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