Former president Donald Trump’s latest remarks claiming that he would oversee the disintegration of the Nato alliance Saturday evening in South Carolina divided Republicans on Sunday.
Mr Trump made the remarks at a rally in Conway, South Carolina.
“If we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” Trump claimed to remember a Nato member-state’s leader asking him when he was president. He then claimed to have responded: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”
But Republicans — who are already experiencing a major split led by Mr Trump about the role of the United States as a global leader — disagreed about whether his words should warrant alarm when quizzed by The Independent.
Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas dismissed critiques of Mr Trump’s rhetoric.
“What I know is he’ll secure the border, he’s going to make this country safer, he’s going to hold Nato accountable,” he told The Independent. “And I think that people need to realize that like, you should take everything that he says seriously, but not literally.”
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a staunch supporter of Mr Trump who led the charge to object to the 2020 presidential election results, said Mr Trump was correct in saying that Nato countries did not pay their fair share, but added that the United States would live up to its commitments.
“Seriously, they need to do more, but obviously we don’t want Russia to invade,” he told The Independent. “If they invaded a Nato country, we’d have to defend them, so we don’t want that.”
Mr Trump’s remarks were not the first to throw into question the future of one of the world’s most significant and consequential military alliances, one that saw countries come to the US’s aid after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But they were his most plain-spoken threat so far: A stunning vow to encourage and support Russian military action against Nato members who did not meet the alliances benchmarks for defence spending.
The remarks specifically referred to Article 5 of the Nato charter, which promises that all Nato members will respond to an attack on any individual member.
The reaction from Nato leadership was swift.
“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” said Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Similarly, some more traditional Republicans sought to distance themselves from Mr Trump’s words. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a combat veteran, also criticised Mr Trump’s words, telling The Independent: “That’s horrible.”
Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley criticised the sentiment of Mr Trump’s words without specifically mentioning the former president.
“No American should do anything to appease Russia,” he told The Independent. Mr Grassley and Ms Ernst have not endorsed Mr Trump despite the fact he overwhelmingly won the Iowa caucuses last month, shattering records.
But Mr Trump’s words drew cheers from the crowd at his Conway, South Carolina rally, where the former president seeks to deliver a deathblow to the campaign of Nikki Haley in the former UN ambassador’s home state. Ms Haley, a traditional conservative on the issue of national defence, is a strong supporter of Nato, and attacked Mr Trump in a statement after he disparaged her husband’s military service at the same event.
Ms Haley addressed her rival’s threat to the Nato defence pact on Sunday, appearing on Face the Nation: “[W]hat bothers me about this is, don’t take the side of a thug who kills his opponents. Don’t take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country and half a million people have died or been wounded because of Putin.”
In Washington, however, many Republican leaders defended or dismissed Mr Trump’s words about Nato. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, brushed off the former president’s remarks as bluster during his interview with CNN.
“Donald Trump was president, and he didn’t pull us out of Nato,” Mr Rubio noted, adding: “I have zero concern.”
But other Republicans chastised Mr Trump. The strongest criticism came from a surprising source: Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator known for his own isolationist leanings and skepticism of America’s military footprint.
“Stupid thing to say,” he told The Independent.
“I agree with with Trump that they don’t pay enough they should pay more, but saying that they should be invaded by Russia,” is not wise, Mr Paul continued.
The split epitomises a larger divide within the Republican. Mr McConnell, a longtime supporter of Ukraine, hoped to pass aid to Ukraine earlier, which led to prolonged negotiations between Senator James Lankford representing Republicans and Independent Senator Kyrsten of Arizona and Chris Murphy of Connecticut representing Democrats to negotiate border security measures in exchange for aid to Ukraine and Israel.
The trio came to an agreement last weekend but Mr Trump’s oppoisition to the package effectively killed it.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Mr Trump was trying to recall a story.
“And I’m sure that he was recounting a story,” he told reporters. “He tends to use a little flourish and his comments, but his point about them paying their fair share is well taken by me.”
Larry Hogan, the popular two-term former governor of Maryland who surprised some in DC this past week by announcing a late-in-the-game bid for a Senate seat held by the retiring Democratic senior senator from his state, Ben Cardin. That race remains a likely hold for Democrats in the fall, but Mr Hogan’s prominence could make the election competitive.
Mr Hogan has long been one of Mr Trump’s loudest critics in the GOP. On Sunday, he pledged to support Nato in the Senate were he to be elected in the fall; Maryland, which is home to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, is home to many military families and civil service employees and is just about the last place Nato skepticism will win Mr Trump any supporters.
The reactions of Mr Hogan and Senator Rubio hint at a line of thinking among Republicans that was prevalent among many of Mr Trump’s private detractors througout the Trump presidency. Many who disagreed with some or most of Mr Trump’s policies especially related to foreign policy and the military relied on the ex-president’s advisers like James Mattis, his former secretary of defence, and Mark Milley, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to rein him in and impede his more impulsive rhetoric and orders, such as a demand for the complete withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by December of his final year as president.
Democrats for their part vocally criticised Mr Trump’s words on Nato. Senator John Fetterman, one of President Joe Biden’s loudest defenders, attacked the media for focusing attention on issues of Mr Biden’s memory and argued that comments such as this from Mr Trump deserved more attention.
“Let’s talk about some bulls*** political hit in that ridiculous kind of report,” the Pennsylvania Democrat told reporters on Sunday. “[L]et’s just talk about the outrage and how astonishing it is that somebody that could be president would say that kind of a thing. You know, is the bar that low where we can just roll our eyes and … ignore that?”
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went after Mr Trump and Republicans over the vow to violate Article 5.
“I don’t think any of my colleagues would stand up and say let Russia attack on our allies because they haven’t paid the rent,” Mr Reed told The Independent. “I mean, it’s ridiculous, this is just preposterous that he says these things.”
The back-and-forth came as the Senate voted to proceed on a security package that would provide aid to Israel and Ukraine amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine and the ongoing Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip.