Trump advisers rush to spin ‘off the cuff’ NATO remarks



“I don’t take him literally with what he said,” said retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence and is now an adviser at the America First Policy Institute. “I know where he’s coming from … and the frustration he feels” toward NATO allies.

Efforts to defend, soften or add nuance to Trump’s words suggest that there’s an understanding, even among the far right, that such a move would carry huge geopolitical consequences. And they’re taking a page from an old playbook to try and calm nerves around it.

There is a lengthy history of Trump confidants insisting that the former president didn’t actually mean what he said in public, stretching back to his first run for the presidency. Trump’s biggest boosters see it as a form of strategic unpredictability that keeps the world on its toes. They argue that confusion over his position on NATO has prompted countries to up their military spending in order to get on his good side.

One conservative foreign policy analyst close to the former president, who talks to him about international issues, said that Trump understands that if Putin invaded Poland or the Baltics, “he would have to help. He knows that.” Trump’s comments, the person added, weren’t meant for an audience beyond his base. “Why the media takes these off the cuff comments so serious is beyond me. Trump says one thing and does another. He was at a rally and it’s meant for right wing outlets like One America Network. Don’t pay attention to them.” The person was granted anonymity to speak freely about private conversations.

But much of the international community and Trump critics back home don’t find it particularly effective or amusing. They fear that he actually wants to weaken NATO and that a second term could usher in the end of the transatlantic alliance.

“The whole world heard it. The worst thing is he means it,” President Joe Biden said on Tuesday. “It’s dumb. It’s shameful. It’s un-American.”

And others who worked with Trump as president cautioned that dismissing his comments as hyperbole — or insisting they’d been wrongly interpreted — ignores the fact that Trump is very ready to take action against the alliance, and
has options to do so
.

“The conversation that he purportedly had with this NATO leader he obviously made up. But the substance of what he said, I think he believes is true,” said John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser turned outspoken critic.

“I would say, particularly those Republicans who say, ‘Oh, this is just Trump talking like Trump,’ you know, I was in the room where he damn near withdrew from NATO.”

Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official in the Trump administration, and a retired Marine and CIA officer, said Trump’s rhetoric could “essentially encourage the start of WWIII.”

“Indicating that the United States will not defend any NATO member if they are attacked by Russia is not only reckless, it is encouraging Russia to do just that,” Mulroy said.

Trump himself has done little to walk back his comments. On Monday, he reiterated his belief that NATO countries must do more or else the U.S. should refrain from promising defenses. NATO, he wrote on Truth Social, “has to equalize,” and added, “They will do that if properly asked. If not, America first!”

But Republicans close to Trump say that the idea he is opposed to NATO is fundamentally wrong.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told POLITICO, “It’s just Trump’s way of saying ‘you gotta pay.’” He added: “We have an obligation to defend our allies, but we should also say ‘don’t freeload on this alliance,’ and this is what Trump’s saying.”

POLITICO spoke with nine people, including current members of Congress and former top officials in the Trump administration, some of whom remain sounding boards for the former president.

Trump’s remarks on NATO themselves track with much of his earlier commentary about — and disparagement of — the transatlantic military alliance. He has long insisted that NATO unfairly relies on the strength of the U.S. and does not require member nations to hit the target of two percent of their GDP being spent on their militaries.

“I found the comments utterly unsurprising,” said a former senior administration official in the Trump White House, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about Trump’s remarks. “There was some pearl clutching and hand wringing from predictable sources but I mean, he thought that way for four years and didn’t pull out of NATO.”

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s former national security adviser,
told Deseret News
he was showing “tough love,” and did not believe Trump was calling for a violation of Article 5 — the provision of the NATO treaty that calls for members to come to each others’ defense.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in a statement that Trump got NATO allies to increase their spending during his term. “When you don’t pay your defense spending you can’t be surprised that you get more war.”

Trump’s latest statements come at a perilous moment for future U.S. support for Ukraine, as continued funding for the war effort has been tangled up with GOP border security demands on Capitol Hill for months. Trump helped kill a deal to tie border reforms to foreign aid when he said the proposed changes to migration policy didn’t go far enough and that it would spoil the issue politically for Republicans.

NATO members committed in 2014 to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. In 2023, only 11 of the 31 members met that target. Last summer, with the support of Biden and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators who said European countries simply weren’t contributing enough, alliance members were called on to make 2 percent spending of GDP on the military “a floor not a ceiling.”

Some of Trump’s allies sidestepped the question — declining to speak to whether Trump would actually pull out of NATO — but argued that the media is simply missing the point — that Trump’s supporters don’t want to foot the bill.

“What would you do if a country said we’re not going to pay? Do you just immediately say, okay, that’s okay. We’re gonna let the American taxpayer pay it?” said former ambassador to Germany under Trump, Richard Grenell. “This is a moment for D.C. types to realize the American taxpayer is furious at this.”

At the same time, what Trump would actually do toward NATO is hard to predict, especially given that the former president, also a former businessman, is eager to make deals and turn a profit at the benefit of the United States alone.

And while broadly, Trump’s foreign policy can be described as “conservative nationalist” — singularly focused on immediately strengthening and enriching the U.S. — those he speaks to do not all prescribe to the same worldview.

Trump’s presidential campaign has not released any list of formal advisers to the former president on foreign policy. But Trump, who feels confident in his own gut instincts when it comes to foreign policy, confers with an unofficial kitchen cabinet of advisers who served in his administration, are up on Capitol Hill and are scattered across think tanks in Washington.

According to multiple people close to Trump, among those he is known to have had discussions with about various foreign policy issues include names like Kellogg, Grenell, Fred Fleitz, John Ratcliffe, Kash Patel and Mike Pompeo. There are also Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Graham and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), and Rep. Michael Waltz.

And while Trump works closely with his campaign speechwriter Vince Haley on prepared remarks, he frequently veers off script based on whatever pops into his head.

Whether or not they were an improvised rally riff, they sparked fresh concerns about the future of NATO should Trump win a second term.

“There are no dues in NATO. This is not Mar-a-Lago country club,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, on MSNBC. The one time Article 5 has been invoked, he notes, was to come to the U.S. defense after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Our NATO allies, in fact, did not send a bill, nor did they need to. We need to stand together. Trump’s comments are just beyond the pale.”



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