The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has not written a lot about former Oval Office occupant Donald Trump for the last 15 months. Keeping track of his immature behavior during his first term left me burned out on the topic. Moreover, since he was out of power, there was little reason to write about him. His interactions with the GOP and media make for some good reality television. I am not an aficionado of that particular genre, however, and felt no need to cover that beat.
Still, when the New Republic asked me to envision what Trump’s foreign policy would look like if he were elected to a second term in 2024, it was not hard to write:
“If Trump wins in 2024, I would anticipate that he would pursue his foreign policy vision in an unconstrained manner. This would include U.S. withdrawals from NATO and security agreements with Japan and South Korea for starters.” — @dandreznerhttps://t.co/DfdeMVue1o— The New Republic (@newrepublic) April 19, 2022
This take appeared to get under the skin of writer Michael Tracey, who tweeted out a thread in response. His key claim: “We now have four years of evidence that Trump had no intrinsic problem with NATO. On the contrary, he took credit for ‘strengthening’ NATO, increasing its funding, and supported two rounds of NATO expansion. This is just the same old BS paranoia-stoking already ramping up again.”
He concluded: “Based on (some) of his rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, it was reasonable to suspect that Trump could pose a serious challenge to “globalist” institutions such as NATO. But if you’re still clinging to that fantasy in 2022 — whether pro or anti-Trump — you’re just self-deluded.”
It is possible that Tracey is engaging in an elaborate prank with these tweets, but let’s assume that he was being sincere. His argument, such as it is, rests on an extremely naive view of how policymaking works.
Here’s what I told the New Republic in full:
It took Trump almost all of his four years to figure out just how some of the levers of government worked. By the end, however, he had begun to realize the power of personnel moves and executive action, particularly in foreign policy. So if Trump wins in 2024, I would anticipate that he would pursue his foreign policy vision in an unconstrained manner. This would include U.S. withdrawals from NATO and security agreements with Japan and South Korea for starters. Withdrawal from the World Trade Organization would also happen. There would also be a wholesale purge of civil servants in national security bureaucracies — essentially what happened at the State Department under Pompeo, but on steroids. Trump’s political appointments — assuming GOP control of the Senate and continued GOP subservience to Trump — would make his subpar first-term appointees look like a team of George Kennans in contrast.
I am making a two-step argument: first, that as disorganized as Trump was during his first term, toward the end he was willing to fire those on his national security team who disagreed with him. Indeed, Trump’s lame duck period mostly consisted of him engaging in wholesale personnel transfers at the Pentagon in a last-ditch effort to withdraw U.S. forces from Europe the Middle East, and elsewhere before his term in office expired.
Trump might be an immature, impulsive leader with a short attention span, but even he can move down a learning curve. It’s safe to assume that he would only nominate individuals as pliant as Kash Patel or Ric Grenell in any second term.
Second, if Trump had more success in appointing only the most loyal toadies to his national security team in 2025, what would he want to do? Pretty much what I said in that paragraph.
It is not hard to find evidence for this claim from Trump’s own staffers and subordinates. In early 2019 Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper reported: “Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” They elaborated that “in the days around a tumultuous NATO summit meeting last summer … Mr. Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.”
In their book “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” my Washington Post colleagues Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker wrote: “Trump had privately indicated that he would seek to withdraw from NATO and to blow up the U.S. alliance with South Korea, should he win reelection.” When his secretary of defense warned him not to do these things before the 2020 election, Trump responded, “Yeah, the second term. We’ll do it in the second term.”
And just last month, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told The Post, “In a second Trump term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO. And I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was waiting for that.”
Little wonder that in his first joint address to Congress, President Biden said: “In my conversations with world leaders — and I’ve spoken to over 38, 40 of them now — I’ve made it known — I’ve made it known that America is back. And you know what they say? The comment that I hear most of all from them is they say, ‘We see America is back but for how long? But for how long?’ ”
So, yes, I think Trump would try to do the things he said he wanted to do in 2016, kept trying to do while president and was eager to attempt to do if he got elected to a second term.
Tracey’s response to all of this on Twitter was: “so you concede that nothing Trump did on a policy level throughout his four years in office suggested a desire to abolish NATO?” Er, no. Or to put it in language that Tracey might understand: Just because Trump did not stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody does not mean he did not try to.
Tracey is correct to note that Trump now claims to have saved NATO, although that claim rests on dubious factual grounds. One can hope that NATO’s renewed popularity in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would force Trump into abandoning that attempt. But I would prefer not to give an attempted murderer — even an incompetent one — a second chance at killing his intended target.