Speaking to supporters at a rally in South Carolina, Trump recounted an exchange from his time in office with the leader of a “big country” who asked whether they would be protected if Russia attacked.
Trump said he told the leader that the U.S. government would not protect the bloc if they didn’t pay their fair share in defense spending.
“I said: ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” Trump recalled. “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills,” he added.
The comments will do little to ease concerns in Europe about U.S. dependability, with military aid that Ukraine desperately needs held up in Congress and the front-runner for the GOP nomination reiterating his long-standing skepticism of America’s historical commitments to its allies.
It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes on with his war in Ukraine, and after some North Atlantic Treaty Organization members have expressed concerns that Russia might look to invade other nations next.
The alliance was formed in 1949 to provide collective defense against the Soviet Union. A hallmark of the agreement is Article 5, which states that an attack on one ally would be considered an attack on all.
Trump has long groused about NATO and sparred with heads of member states, reportedly threatening to pull the United States out of the bloc over demands that member nations hit the target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
Since coming into office, President Joe Biden has sought to reassure NATO of the U.S. commitment to the alliance, a stark contrast to his Republican predecessor.
Last month, Biden signed an $886 billion defense bill that bars a president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO, which could thwart Trump’s 2024 campaign pledge to “fundamentally” re-evaluate “NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”
The White House said Trump’s latest comments were “appalling and unhinged.”
“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,” spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement Saturday night.
“Rather than calling for wars and promoting deranged chaos, President Biden will continue to bolster American leadership and stand up for our national security interests — not against them,” he said.
A report released last year showed only 11 of the then-30 member nations were spending 2% of their GDP or more on defense. But the figure is a target not a requirement, and many NATO members have stepped up their military spending in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
Finland was granted NATO membership status last year, and Sweden is in the process of joining. Denmark’s defense minister warned Friday that a new threat assessment based on new intelligence indicates that Russia could attack a NATO country within three to five years.
Besides the NATO comment, Trump on Saturday also boasted about the recent failure to pass a bipartisan border deal.
“We crushed crooked Joe Biden’s disastrous border deal. Mike Johnson did a very good job,” Trump said, referencing the Republican House leader and his opposition to the bill.
It was widely reported that Trump wanted his party to reject the legislation in hopes that he could use the crisis at the southern border as a political tool to win re-election in November.
But the clash in Washington has meant that new military aid to Ukraine remained held up, hampering Kyiv’s fight against the Kremlin’s forces at a crucial moment on the battlefield.
His stated ambivalence toward Russian aggression has long fueled concerns in Ukraine and beyond about what a second Trump presidency would mean for the continent.
A high-level European Union official said last month that Trump had told top European officials while he was in office that the U.S. would never help Europe if it came under attack.
“The real problem is whether Trump is looking to stabilize onto a rebalanced relationship, but one where we remain trusted allies nonetheless, or whether this is directional, i.e., part of a steady and deliberate erosion of our relationship, with rupture as the final destination,” said Edward Hunter Christie, a former NATO official and senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“It would be more reasonable to assume that Trump is preparing the ground for abandoning Europe and for striking deals with Russia over our heads,” he said in a post on X Saturday.