CONWAY, S.C. — Former president Donald Trump ramped up his attacks on NATO on Saturday, claiming he suggested to a foreign leader that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to member countries he views as not spending enough on their own 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 during a rally at Coastal Carolina University. “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.”
Trump’s remarks come as the GOP is debating whether to provide additional foreign aid to Ukraine, which is fighting a war with Russia after being invaded by Moscow in 2022. The Senate is considering legislation that would give $60 billion to Ukraine. House Republicans, however, have echoed Trump’s skepticism about doing so.
Trump has long been a fierce critic of U.S. participation in the alliance, frequently hammering European countries on their share of defense spending, and appeared to be referring to indirect funding as part of participation in the alliance.
Since 2006, each NATO member has had a guideline of spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense spending by 2024. NATO countries were already increasing their funding substantially before Trump’s presidency, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. More than half have met or come close to that goal as of 2023, and many member countries have increased their spending in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trump has previously suggested that he threatened not to protect NATO allies from a Russian attack. During a 2022 event at the Heritage Foundation, the former president recounted a meeting where he told fellow foreign leaders that he may not follow NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause if other countries did not spend more for their own defense.
The anecdote appears to be a reference to NATO’s 2018 summit, in which leaders suggested that Trump’s threats were not as explicit, as The Washington Post previously reported. But Saturday’s remarks were an escalation from those previous statements.
Under Article 5, if a NATO ally is attacked, other member countries of NATO consider it “an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.” Since NATO’s founding in 1949, the clause has been invoked only once: On Sept. 12, 2001, after the terrorist attacks in the United States the day before.
Several NATO partnership experts described Trump’s understanding of the financial obligations of NATO member countries as inaccurate, and argued that his opposition to collective security as a member nation is misplaced.
“NATO isn’t a pay to play set up, as Trump seems to think. It’s an Alliance that is first and foremost about US national security interests to prevent another world war originating in Europe,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, in an email to The Post. “The US investment in NATO is worth every dollar – the only time that the article 5 collective defense clause was initiated was in response to 9/11. Our Allies came to our aid then, and it would be shameful and misguided to not do the same.”
In May 2017, Trump initially did not affirm the United States’ commitment to Article 5, but then reversed course two weeks later. Trump broadly has expressed skepticism about NATO. His campaign website states: “we have to finish the process we began under my Administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”
The New York Times reported in 2019 that Trump discussed withdrawing from NATO. While he was in office, Trump repeatedly tried to claim credit for making NATO countries pay more, claiming that “hundreds of billions” of dollars came to NATO as a result of his complaints about other countries as “delinquent” members.
Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European affairs and fellow at the Atlantic Council, said of Trump: “He seems to prefer a world based on pure power where other countries, where the [U.S.] intimidates or threatens other countries. The trouble with that is when we need them those other countries won’t be there.”
“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,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Trump has also often suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine, had he remained in office.
Saturday’s speech marked Trump’s first visit to South Carolina this year, where he will face former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in the Feb. 24 primary. Trump is currently leading the polls in South Carolina and has the backing of several key officials in the state, including Gov. Henry McMaster. A recent Washington Post-Monmouth University poll found Trump had 58 percent support among potential Republican primary voters, while Haley had 32 percent.
In a sign of Trump’s focus on the general election, he did not devote as much time to attacking Haley. Yet at one point in the speech, he attacked Haley’s husband, a service member who is currently deployed overseas.
“Where’s her husband? Oh, he’s away,” Trump said. “He’s gone. He knew, he knew.”
Haley responded to Trump’s attack on her husband at an evening rally in Gilbert, S.C., defending his service and again challenging Trump to debate.
“I’ll say this: Donald, if you have something to say, don’t say it behind my back. Get on a debate stage and say it to my face,” Haley said. “If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s license, let alone to be president of the United States.”
Haley continued to hammer Trump at her events throughout the state on Saturday. Her staff passed out mock mental competency tests to reporters, challenging both Trump and Biden to take one, and attendees sported stickers featuring a drawing of a chicken with Trump-like features reading “Trump is too chicken to debate.” A mobile billboard circling Trump’s event read “grumpy old men.”
Dylan Wells contributed to this report.