Congress has passed a sweeping law that may spell trouble for Trump if he wins in 2024.
Trump’s views about NATO received renewed attention after he riffed during a political rally.
The former president said he told a foreign leader the US might not defend a NATO member.
Former President Donald Trump sparked a backlash over the weekend after he suggested that he would let Russia attack NATO members that fail to meet the alliance’s spending targets.
Nikki Haley, his former UN Ambassador, criticized Trump for his comments, but after Congress took a little-noticed action in December, there are fewer reasons for lawmakers to fret about the former president’s comments on the critical defense alliance.
A brief provision in the massive $886 billion bill funding the Pentagon would likely kill Trump or any future president’s ambitions to withdraw the US from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Sens. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, teamed up to muscle their bill — which would require an act of Congress or Senate approval to leave NATO — into what’s often deemed a must-pass measure that funds service members and outlines national security priorities. President Joe Biden later signed the overall legislation into law.
Trump during a rally in South Carolina said he once told an unnamed foreign leader that the US would not defend that leader’s country if it failed to pay enough for its defense.
“No, I would not protect you,” Trump said he told that president. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”
Rubio, one of the authors of the NATO provision, later told CNN that he did not take the former president to be suggesting he would not defend all NATO members.
“That’s not what happened, and that’s not how I view that statement,” Rubio told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The Florida Republican added that Trump “doesn’t talk like a traditional politician” and was simply telling a story.
The bipartisan NATO limitation went nowhere when Trump was in office
Kaine and Rubio failed to pass their bill when Trump was in the White House.
Trump is not mentioned directly in the provision. He has also not explicitly promised to withdraw from what was originally a Cold War-era alliance. Nonetheless, there are persistent fears that if Trump wins the 2024 presidential election, he will withdraw the US from NATO. As The New York Times pointed out recently, Trump’s campaign website does include this vague sentence, “We have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally re-evaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”
A Trump spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the provision.
The former president has been harshly critical of NATO for decades. In a 2000 book, Trump wrote that pulling back from the alliance “would save this country millions of dollars annually.” He added: “The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.”
As president, he harangued NATO members, saying they weren’t spending enough on their defense and pushing to double the 2%-of-GDP spending target, to a point that not even the US had met.
Trump also unnerved some NATO members by questioning the collective-defense provision at the core of the alliance. Article 5 has been invoked only once in NATO’s 74-year history: after the September 11 terror attacks. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, then a Fox News host, Trump questioned why the US would want to defend Montenegro, which joined NATO in 2019.
“I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question,” Trump told Carlson, who had asked about the collective-defense requirement. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. Now I understand that. But that’s the way it was set up.”
It’s not entirely clear whether Trump or any president could unilaterally pull the nation out of NATO even if the provision didn’t pass. The US Constitution requires presidents to seek Senate approval for treaties, but there are disagreements on whether Senate approval is needed to end a treaty. As the Times pointed out, courts have previously tried to avoid settling such disputes.
Under the provision, a president would be required to notify key committees in both the House and the Senate no later than 180 days before deliberating whether to “suspend, terminate, denounce, or withdraw” from NATO. If a president pressed forward, a withdrawal would require an act of Congress or two-thirds of the senators present to approve of such an action.
Unless there’s a dramatic change in US politics, it’s hard to see any leader ever crossing that threshold.
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