On Saturday, former president Donald Trump claimed that, as president, he told America’s NATO allies that the United States wouldn’t protect them against Russia if they hadn’t contributed enough money to the military alliance.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has long criticized defense spending by NATO allies, falsely claiming they owe unpaid debt to the alliance. But Saturday’s remarks, at a campaign event in Conway, SC, suggested that he would encourage attacks against “delinquent” nations.

Trump recalled another country’s leader asking him while he was president, “If we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” He allegedly responded, “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.” Trump claimed last year that “hundreds of billions of dollars came flowing in” to NATO after his threats. (Fact-checkers have deemed similar past claims from Trump “an exaggeration.”) 

While there has been a debate about NATO spending, it isn’t about unpaid debt, but rather whether NATO allies are spending enough of their economic output on their own defense. In 2014, member countries pledged to move toward spending 2 percent of their GDPs on military preparedness; so far, just 11 of 31 member countries have reached that goal. (The United States is an outlier, spending vastly more than most nations on military activities—an estimated 3.5 percent of GDP.) 

Trump’s remarks come as congressional Republicans have stalled on sending more aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia—aid that, at his campaign event, Trump said the United States should “give it to ‘em as a loan.”

The White House quickly condemned his comments. “Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “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.”

In a statement Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also rebuked Trump’s comments. “NATO remains ready and able to defend all allies,” Stoltenberg said. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

Julia Lurie

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