Republicans sidestep criticizing Trump’s attack on NATO

Republican lawmakers were again forced to grapple with controversial remarks made by Donald Trump after the former president said that he would disregard the NATO treaty among the United States and its allies.

At a campaign rally on Saturday night in South Carolina, Trump claimed he once told the leader of a NATO member 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.

His remarks sparked anger among Democrats and concern among European leaders, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said in a statement that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

Among Republican lawmakers, however, the remarks were met with a mixture of pushback, defensiveness and silence.

Trump’s NATO-bashing comments rile allies, rekindle European fears

As they voted to advance a funding package for Ukraine and Israel on Sunday, some Republican senators told reporters that they had not heard the president’s remarks.

“I haven’t seen that, so I’d need to listen to his quote first,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). After a reporter asked him if he thought it was correct for Trump to encourage Russia to attack a NATO country, Tuberville said he was “not getting in that conversation.”

Some, like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), sought to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks, but reminded reporters that it is not the first time Trump has voiced complaints about NATO members not carrying their weight.

“He used a little flourish that I would not have used, but he’s not wrong about having far too many members not paying the minimum 2 percent for NATO,” Tillis said, adding that it was a “foot fault” on behalf of Trump’s staff for “even allowing” the idea of Russia attacking a NATO member “to get out there.”

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“Obviously that is not something I believe that he should have said, but I also don’t believe that’s something that he honestly believes,” he said.

Others waved off Trump’s comments as “politics” and suggested the president’s words were being used to create a negative narrative.

“It’s pretty clear to me that he’s going to push them to pay, but I don’t think he’s going to withdraw,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “He’s trying to make a point, I’m not worried about it at all.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking to CNN on Sunday excused Trump’s comments by saying they should not be taken literally and arguing that the former president was simply “telling a story” about “how he used leverage to get people to step up to the plate and become more active in NATO.”

“Trump is not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations,” Rubio said on “State of the Union.” “He doesn’t talk like a traditional politician.”

Most dismissed the idea that Trump was actively trying to encourage Russian aggression.

“None of us want to see a war in Europe and I don’t think he does either,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “I’m quite certain the president does not want to see us in a war with Russia.”

Tillis also noted that “any attack on a NATO ally would have devastating consequences for American men and women who would be deployed to defend them.”

Here’s a look at what NATO does

Trump’s remarks on NATO were part of his standard campaign-trail haranguing of the alliance’s members who have failed to comply with a 2006 pledge to eventually raise military spending levels to 2 percent of their country’s GDP.

In 2018, Trump shook up a summit of NATO allies in Brussels with harsh comments suggesting that the United States might not comply with its commitment to defend other alliance members from attack unless they paid more money. Back then, Tillis reassured the United States’ nervous allies by telling them that Congress fully supports the alliance.

“There is no applause line for ‘Let’s get out of NATO,’” he said then.

On Sunday, senators reaffirmed their commitment to NATO and sending the $60 billion in assistance to Ukraine on the Senate floor. Ukraine is not a member of the treaty, but many NATO member countries have banded together to help the European nation fend off Russia’s invasion.

When asked what he made of Republicans shrugging off Trump’s comments, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) delivered a stark warning.

“He is going to withdraw from NATO. He is going to weaponize the entire Department of Justice,” Murphy said. “All the stuff that he was stopped from doing in his first term, he is going to do in the second term. Every single Republican in their bones knows that.”

Analysis: Republican NATO hawks wave the white flag to Trump’s provocations

Notably, key Republican leaders in the Capitol, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), remained mum on the subject. As of Monday evening, Johnson had not made an official comment on Trump’s remarks. Spokespeople for the speaker did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also did not respond to reporters’ questions on Sunday on Trump’s remarks. However, on the Senate floor ahead of the vote to advance the Ukraine and Israel funding package, McConnell delivered a passionate speech on the importance of the United States’ commitments to its allies.

“I know it’s become quite fashionable in some circles to disregard the global interests we have as a global power, to bemoan the responsibilities of global leadership, to lament the commitment that has underpinned the longest drought of great power conflict in human history,” McConnell said. “This is idle work for idle minds. And it has no place in the United States Senate.”

A few Republicans were more direct about their criticism of Trump. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters it was uncalled for Trump to suggest the United States throw NATO allies “to the Russian wolves.”

As he left the Senate floor on Sunday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters that the former president’s remarks have “dangerous implications.”

“One of America’s advantages in geopolitics is that we have friends and the Russians and the Chinese don’t,” Romney said. “Well, we’re going to lose friends if we go around saying that we’re going to not protect them under the obligations we have.”

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.

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