A leading Republican senator said Donald Trump was “simply ringing the warning bell” when he caused global alarm by declaring he would encourage Russia to attack Nato allies who did not pay enough to maintain the alliance, as Trump’s party closed ranks behind its presumptive presidential nominee.
“Nato countries that don’t spend enough on defense, like Germany, are already encouraging Russian aggression and President Trump is simply ringing the warning bell,” Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a former soldier, told the New York Times.
“Strength, not weakness, deters aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine twice under Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but not under Donald Trump.”
As president between 2017 and 2021, Trump was widely held to have shown alarming favour, and arguably subservience, to Vladimir Putin.
Trump made the controversial remarks at a rally in South Carolina on Saturday.
In remarks the Times said were not part of Trump’s planned speech but which did repeat a story he has often told, the former president said: “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?’
“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 [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want. You’ve got to pay. You’ve got to pay your bills. And the money came flowing in.”
Amid fierce controversy over remarks the Biden White House called “appalling and unhinged”, another Republican hawk in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told the Times: “Give me a break – I mean, it’s Trump.”
Graham, who has vacillated from warning that Trump will “destroy” the Republican party to full-throated support, added: “All I can say is while Trump was president nobody invaded anybody. I think the point here is to, in his way, to get people to pay.”
Last year, Marco Rubio co-sponsored a law preventing presidents unilaterally withdrawing from Nato. On Sunday the Florida senator, whom Trump ridiculed and defeated in the 2016 primary, also dismissed Trump’s remarks about Russia.
“Donald Trump is not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations,” Rubio told CNN, referring to a Washington thinktank. “He doesn’t talk like a traditional politician, and we’ve already been through this. You would think people would’ve figured it out by now.”
Among other Senate Republicans there was some rather muted pushback. Thom Tillis of North Carolina reportedly blamed Trump’s aides for failing to explain to him how Nato works, while Rand Paul of Kentucky was quoted by Politico as saying Trump’s remarks represented “a stupid thing to say”.
Trump’s last rival for the presidential nomination, which he is all but certain to secure, is Nikki Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under Trump. Asked about his remarks, Haley told CBS: “Nato has been a success story for the last 75 years. But what bothers me about this is, don’t take the side of a thug [Vladimir Putin], who kills his opponents. Don’t take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country [Ukraine] and half a million people have died or been wounded because of Putin.
“Now, we do want Nato allies to pull their weight. But there are ways you can do that without sitting there and telling Russia, have your way with these countries. That’s not what we want.”
A former candidate for the nomination, the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, told NBC the Nato remark was “absolutely inappropriate” and “consistent with his love for dictators”.
Among former Trump aides, John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, told MSNBC: “When he says he wants to get out of Nato, I think it’s a very real threat, and it will have dramatically negative implications for the United States, not just in the North Atlantic but worldwide.”
HR McMaster, Bolton’s predecessor, who was a serving army general when Trump picked him, said Trump’s Nato comment was “irresponsible”.
Another former general and former Trump adviser, Keith Kellogg, told the Times he thought Trump was “on to something” with his remarks, which Kellogg said were meant to prompt member nations to bolster their own defences.
“I don’t think it’s encouragement at all,” Kellogg said of Trump’s apparent message to Russia. “We know what he means when he says it.”
But Liz Cheney, the former Republican Wyoming congresswoman who became a Trump opponent after the January 6 attack on Congress, called Nato “the most successful military alliance in history … essential to deterring war and defending American security”. She added: “No sane American president would encourage Putin to attack our Nato allies. No honorable American leaders would excuse or endorse this.”