CLEVELAND — Donald Trump’s comments Wednesday about a new U.S. approach to NATO and other world issues were not a mistake, or bluster, or a negotiating position meant to strike some future deal with America’s allies. He meant every word and will do what he said whether Europeans and Republicans like it or not, according to his chief policy adviser.
Sam Clovis, who has been the Trump campaign’s top policy official since last August, told an audience Thursday that the Republican nominee’s comments in an interview with the New York Times, which included threats to condition the U.S. commitment to aiding NATO allies in distress on their financial contributions, are what the candidate believes and what the United States must do to reorient the scope and nature of U.S. foreign policy.
NATO allies and establishment Republicans might not like that, but in the end the United States simply can’t continue to bear its current international burden, Clovis said. European allies have to increase their military spending and NATO allies can’t depend on unconditional U.S. support any more.
“What it says is, ‘We are going to be right there with you. We’ll stand with you, but if you are going to come to the gunfight, carry a gun,'” said Clovis, referring to Trump’s interview. “Make sure we’re not the only ones with a gun, that’s all we’re saying. If you are going to come to the gun fight, make sure you’re packing.”
Clovis was speaking to a group of European diplomats and experts assembled by the International Republican Institute for a discussion on European security and the transatlantic alliance. International concern about Trump’s comments is high, but Clovis said Trump was simply being clear about his intentions and European nations should take that as a marker of what he really believes.
“We’re not about to spill one drop of blood or spend one more dollar unless we know exactly what the outcome is going to be or at least have some notion of what the predictability is,” he said.
Several of the European diplomats at the event told me they had already sent diplomatic cables back to their capitals about the Trump interview. Some told their superiors that Trump’s comments should be viewed as a negotiating position, an opening gambit by a chief executive who wants to strike a future deal with European allies.
“He clearly sees foreign policy through a business lens,” one diplomat from a NATO country told me. “The problem is, that doesn’t work.”
Other diplomats told their governments this morning that they have no other option but to be very worried about the ideas Trump is espousing. European countries can’t bet on the notion that Trump is just blustering. In fact, the interview confirmed most foreign officials’ fears that Trump’s views on the world are exactly what he says they are and will never change.
Clovis said that Republicans and Europeans alike should see Trump’s vision of the U.S. role in Europe, which could also include drastic cutbacks in the number of U.S. troops deployed abroad, as a positive and needed reform that will eventually make the alliance stronger.
“What we’re offering is a very clear, mature, adult, realistic view of the world. It may not follow the Republican orthodoxy. But it does follow an orthodoxy that is based on reality,” he said.
He also angrily defended the Trump campaign’s successful effort last week, which I first reported, to remove language from the GOP platform that would call for providing lethal defensive weaponry to Ukraine. That policy would just be one more U.S. commitment in Europe that the nation can’t afford, he said.
“It’s okay to go out here and load your mouth up and say stuff and say, ‘Yeah we are going to come to your aid, we’re going to provide you arms, we’re going to come out and do all these things. But nobody has taken the time to think this through to its logical conclusion,” said Clovis. “What are the costs going to be to the United States, not just in Ukraine but also in NATO and also around the world?”
Inside the Trump campaign, advisers will often wait until their candidate says something new on foreign policy and then craft a policy that explains Trump’s statements after the fact. But Trump’s comments in his Wednesday interview did not require the team to come up with new explanations. His comments fit into the frame the campaign was already working within.
“Mr. Trump is committed to supporting NATO, but by god we are going to have to take a look at things. It’s time to review where we are with that alliance,” said Clovis. “This is not a hostile, confrontational issue. This is an opportunity for us to go in and take a hard look at where we stand in NATO.”
But for European and Republican officials here in Cleveland, the way Trump went about announcing his new plan for NATO was hostile. He rattled the world by casually telling reporters he might not fulfill U.S. treaty obligations. Many Republicans agree that European countries need to do more, but they doubt Trump’s threats will persuade them.
“If you want to get results from the Europeans, you have to understand the perspective [of] our European partners,” one GOP official in Cleveland told me. “Simply throwing a temper tantrum and yelling at them will not produce results.”
Diplomacy is not a business negotiation. Trump can’t bully Europe into spending more on defense. Trump’s threats will not encourage Europe to invest more in its alliance with the United States. In fact, it could push European nations to make exactly the opposite calculation.