His comments drew fierce backlash from some Republicans, the White House and leading Western officials, with the head of the trans-Atlantic alliance suggesting they could put the lives of American and European soldiers at greater risk.
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 now reiterating his long-standing skepticism of America’s historical commitments to its allies.
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 it would be protected if Russia attacked.
Trump said he told the leader that the U.S. government would not protect the bloc if it didn’t pay its 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.”
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.
Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told NBC News: “Democrat and media pearl-clutchers seem to have forgotten that we had four years of peace and prosperity under President Trump, but Europe saw death and destruction under Obama-Biden and now more death and destruction under Biden. President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer. When you don’t pay your defense spending you can’t be surprised that you get more war.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “remains ready and able to defend all allies. Any attack on NATO will be met with a united and forceful response.”
Stoltenberg cautioned 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.”
But he added: “I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”
Polish Defense Minister Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz also criticized Trump.
“NATO’s motto ‘one for all, all for one’ is a concrete commitment. Undermining the credibility of allied countries means weakening the entire NATO,” he wrote on X. “No election campaign is an excuse for playing with the security of the alliance.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing on with his war in Ukraine, and some NATO members have expressed concerns that Russia might look to invade other countries 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 U.S. out of the bloc over demands that member nations hit the target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
Since he came 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.
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 invasion of Ukraine.
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.
“We crushed crooked Joe Biden’s disastrous border deal. Mike Johnson did a very good job,” Trump said, referring to the Republican House speaker and his opposition to the bill.
It was widely reported that Trump wanted his party to reject the legislation in hope 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 remains 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 Europe.
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 Saturday on X.