Former President Donald J. Trump said Saturday that as president he told leaders of NATO nations he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” with countries that have the money they want owed to the military, not paid by Alliance.
Mr. Trump did not make it clear whether he ever planned to follow through on such a threat or what it would mean for the alliance, but rather his comments at a campaign rally in South Carolina — a variation on what he had previously made to highlight his negotiations capabilities – is likely to raise concerns among NATO member states, already nervous about the prospect of Trump’s return.
Mr. Trump’s suggestion that he would encourage Russian aggression against allies of the United States — for whatever reason — comes at a time when Republicans in Congress are opposing more aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia and as European officials have expressed concern about possible Russian aggression on NATO’s eastern side.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the warnings as “threats” in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired on Thursday. “We have no interest in Poland, Latvia or anywhere else,” Putin said.
But he has also called on the United States to reach “an agreement” to end the war in Ukraine by ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia. These comments were seen by some as a call for American conservatives to block further involvement in the war.
Some European officials and foreign policy experts have said they are concerned that Russia could invade a NATO country after the end of the war with Ukraine. The fears, they say, are heightened by the possibility of Mr. Trump returning to the presidency.
Mr. Trump has previously expressed his belief that supporting NATO places an undue burden on the United States, saying the alliance is putting a strain on its financial and military resources. His campaign website says the country needs to reevaluate the organization’s purpose.
He recalled privately telling NATO members in the past that the United States would not protect them from Russian attacks if they were behind. Last year, he claimed in a campaign speech that “hundreds of billions of dollars were poured into NATO” after he made that threat.
On Saturday, he brought up that anecdote again, saying he had told European leaders they had to “pay up.”
Then, he said, “the president of a major country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we get attacked by Russia, will you protect us?'”
Mr. Trump said he asked the other president if the country was “delinquent” on its payments. The leader replied, “Yes. Let’s say that happened,” Mr. Trump said.
“No, I wouldn’t protect you,” Mr. Trump recalled responding. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You have to pay. You have to pay your bills.”