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Opinion Trump’s new NATO comments should put Republicans in an untenable spot

(Reuters/Rick Wilking)
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As you surely know by now, the biggest news of the day is that in an interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump raised new questions about his commitment to defending NATO members. The key exchange was this one:

QUESTION: 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.

As the Times write-up noted, this “appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies,” though this is “consistent with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.”

This should — theoretically, at least — pose a very difficult dilemma for Republicans supporting Trump. Some Republicans have already condemned Trump’s new remarks. In so doing, however, they only underscored how untenable their own support for him is becoming.

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes today, with these comments, Trump “openly questioned whether the U.S., under his leadership, would keep its commitments” to NATO, putting us in “uncharted waters.” Goldberg concludes that Trump’s election “would immediately trigger a wave of global instability — much worse than anything we are seeing today — because America’s allies understand that Trump would likely dismantle the post-World War II U.S.-created international order.” This would “liberate dictators, first and foremost his ally Vladimir Putin, to advance their own interests,” setting the world on a path to more “despotism and darkness.”

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This conclusion was echoed by retired admiral James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO who is thought to be on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist of potential Veep candidates. Stavridis wrote today that Trump’s proposals “would deeply damage the underpinnings of the global system and work to America’s profound disadvantage,” undermining the “postwar security infrastructure that has bound Western democracies to one another.”

In his interview with the Times, Trump stressed that considerations about whether to defend NATO allies would primarily be evaluated as economic decisions. “The idea that Trump would begin by carefully scrutinizing the balance sheet,” Stavridis wrote, “would undermine every principle of the alliance creating deep uncertainty in the hearts of our allies and giving immense good cheer to Vladimir Putin.” The upshot: This would “create enormous uncertainty in the world.”

Meanwhile, Politico reports: “Trump’s comments were especially unnerving to smaller NATO countries, such as the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who in recent years have begun to fear Russia’s military aims.” This led some to joke morbidly on twitter that Trump has only been the nominee for around a day or so, but he is already causing an international incident.

Republicans, too, broke with Trump’s remarks. Senator Tom Cotton, a rising-star representative of the GOP’s neocon wing, told CNN that he disagreed with Trump and found his remarks “counterproductive.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger ripped them as “ill-informed” and “dangerous.”

AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for Paul Ryan, emailed me this: “The speaker believes the U.S. should defend our NATO allies.”

But the most noteworthy response of all came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In an interview with Politico’s Seung Min Kim, McConnell broke with Trump. But note what came next:

“I disagree with that,” McConnell said in an interview with POLITICO on Thursday at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. “NATO is the most important military alliance in world history. I want to reassure our NATO allies that if any of them get attacked, we’ll be there to defend them.”…
Though he said he disagreed with those remarks, McConnell said the NATO comments didn’t give him concern about Trump’s fitness to be commander in chief.
“I think he’s wrong on that,” McConnell said. “I don’t think that view would be prevalent or held by anybody he might make secretary of state or secretary of defense.”

That is remarkable. McConnell is actually saying that even though Trump’s comments require him to reassure our allies in service of preserving “the most important military alliance in world history,” this should not raise concerns about his fitness to serve as president, because the leading foreign policy and national security officials that Trump will choose as president will disagree with him!

Republicans who have endorsed Trump have adopted creative ways of reassuring folks that he doesn’t really pose as frightening a threat as he seems. In May, McConnell suggested that Trump could not do too much damage. “What protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions,” McConnell said. “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country.” John McCain has similarly suggested that our institutions remain strong, adding, perhaps too optimistically, that “we’re not Romania.”

But we’ve reached a new level of absurdity: Now we are basically being told that the check against the threat Trump poses will come from his own cabinet officials.

It is sometimes suggested that some of the more responsible Republicans who have endorsed Trump are operating under the assumption that Trump is all but certain to lose the election, so there’s no real harm in supporting him, for the good of party unity or down-ticket incumbents or what have you. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But if it is, these new comments dramatically raise the potential stakes of a surprise Trump win. Theoretically, at least, this should render that position a whole lot less tenable.