• Congress has passed a sweeping law that could 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 recalled how he told a foreign leader the US might not defend the 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.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized Trump for his comments, but after Congress took a little-noticed action in December there are now fewer reasons for lawmakers to fret about the former president’s comments about the critical defense alliance.

A brief provision in the massive $886 billion bill funding the Pentagon would likely kill Trump or any potential future president’s ambitions to withdraw the United States 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 is often deemed a must-pass bill that funds servicemembers and outlines national security priorities. President Biden later signed the overall legislation into law.

Trump during a rally in South Carolina recalled how he once told an unnamed foreign leader that the US would not defend the country if they failed to pay enough for their defense.

“No, I would not protect you,” Trump recalled telling 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 stressed 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. 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 for not spending enough on their defense, 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 that is at the core of the alliance. Article 5 has only been invoked once in NATO’s 74-year history: after the September 11th attacks. In an interview with then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, 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 if 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 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 2/3rds of the senators present to approve of such an action.

Unless there is a dramatic change in US politics, it’s hard to see any leader ever crossing that bar.

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