CLEVELAND — Imagine how Donald Trump’s acolytes would react if Hillary Clinton said that America need not fulfill its NATO duty to defend alliance nations threatened by aggression.
Imagine how they’d react if Clinton ever said that NATO’s core credo — Article 5, which compels us to provide immediate military aid to threatened nations — was just an option.
Imagine how they’d react if she were to signal such an American retreat, a signal that would wreak havoc with the postwar international order and give aid and comfort to expansionist dictators.
Naturally, the Trumpers would scream treason and amend “Lock her up” to “String her up.”
But guess what. That dangerous dissing of NATO, that kind of American retreat, is precisely what Trump himself signaled in a New York Times interview conducted earlier this week and posted today. Trump has said some of this stuff before, but it’s magnified now by the fact that he has doubled down during convention week.
The stance he takes is unprecedented for a Republican candidate; it’s a virtual renunciation of Republican principles dating back to the late ’40s. (Republicans had long been big on NATO and assertive on international security, but apparently not this guy). The stance is a gift to Vladimir Putin and his expansionist ambitions. The stance is also a gift to Hillary Clinton, who can rightly use it to paint Trump as weak and dangerous. (She has already done so today: “Ronald Reagan would be ashamed.”)
Trump, as a business mercenary with no governing experience, thinks NATO should be all about money. If free nations kick in their fair share of money, then yeah, we’ll defend them; if they don’t kick in, then nah, we need not defend them. That’s not how NATO works; Article V is about collective defense (an armed attack against one member “shall be considered an attack against them all”), and there isn’t a single syllable about money. After all, lives are at stake.
But Der Leader apparently doesn’t believe he is bound by treaties — as evidenced by key passages in the Times interview.
NYT: [The Baltic States, all NATO members] are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do …
NYT: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated —
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
NYT: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
NYT: My point here is, can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations —
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
NYT: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not.
Hilariously, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort insisted last night that the Times had misquoted his boss. Either Manafort hadn’t seen the transcript, or he simply opted to lie. In fact, Trump retreated from NATO a number of times during the interview — as you’ll see here. Though you’ll need to wade through his Palinesque word salad.
TRUMP: If we cannot make a deal [on the money], which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.’ I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?
NYT: We do.
Granted, this NATO stuff is probably too nuanced for the blood-lusting lock-her-up delegates in the hall, and even if they were to pay attention, they’d probably attack “the media” for quoting Trump’s actual words. Whatever. The point is, Trump has gifted Clinton with ammo for her key assertion — we’ll hear it next week in Philadelphia — that he’s soft on security, that he’s a dangerous threat to our web of international alliances.
And poor Mike Pence! After last week’s rollout screw-up (all the leaks about how Trump preferred someone else), the “60 Minutes” screw-up (on camera, with Pence sitting there mute, Trump said that Pence had make “a mistake” by voting for war in Iraq), last night’s screw-up (Team Trump allowed Ted Cruz to voice a non-endorsement, triggering floor anger and stealing the thunder from Pence’s acceptance speech), Pence had to go on Fox News this morning and try to hose down the NATO flap.
He said, “I have every confidence Donald Trump will stand by our allies and honor our treaty obligations” — even though Trump had just suggested the opposite. For Pence, it’s gonna be a long four months.
But if Trump was crystal clear about anything in the Times interview, it was certainly this:
Q: What do you think people will take away from this convention? What are you hoping?
TRUMP: From the convention? The fact that I’m very well liked.
The Cruz flap, over his refusal to endorse the very well liked man, is still raging. At a Pennsylvania delegation breakfast, Congressman Tom Marino said: “That was the wrong thing to do. My father used to say, ‘You know a man’s true colors, his true being, when his interests are at stake.’ Ted could’ve been a hero, but he let his ego get in the way.”
Clearly Cruz is trying to distance himself from a Trump debacle in November, and set himself up for 2020. But Congressman Lou Barletta signaled that elephants have long memories: “It was a self-inflicted wound. He didn’t hurt Donald Trump. He hurt Ted Cruz. He was the loser out of that.”