The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s effort to rewrite history on his support of NATO and Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, front center-left, speaks with President Donald Trump, after a group photo at a meeting of NATO leaders in Watford, England, in 2019. (Francisco Seco/AP)
7 min

“I hope everyone is able to remember that it was me, as President of the United States, that got delinquent NATO members to start paying their dues, which amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars. There would be no NATO if I didn’t act strongly and swiftly. Also, it was me that got Ukraine the very effective antitank busters (Javelins) when the previous Administration was sending blankets. Let History so note!”

— Former president Donald Trump, in a statement, Feb. 28

Only days ago, Trump lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin as “very savvy” for making a “genius” move by declaring two regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states and dispatching Russian armed forces to seize them. “Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump said Feb. 22 on the “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton” show, referring to the troops as “the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen.”

Of course, it turns out that Putin launched an invasion of all of Ukraine. With Ukraine putting up a gallant fight and the United States and its allies imposing harsh sanctions on Russia, Trump on Monday issued a defensive statement repeating falsehoods he regularly made during his presidency.

With Trump, it’s hard to know if he’s willfully ignorant or if he has simply swallowed his own spin. Far from being a savior of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he frequently sought to undermine it. Here’s a quick guide to what’s wrong or misleading in his statement.

“It was me, as President of the United States, that got delinquent NATO members to start paying their dues, which amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars.”

During the 2016 presidential election, Trump consistently inflated the U.S. contribution to NATO. Once he became president, his inaccuracy persisted, but with a twist. Nearly 150 times during his presidency, he claimed that “hundreds of billions” of dollars had come into NATO because of his complaints. Sometimes, as president, he even suggested this money might be coming directly to the United States.

This is all poppycock.

There are two types of funding for NATO: direct funding and indirect funding. The amount of direct funding provided by each NATO member, for military-related operations, maintenance and headquarters activity, generally is based on gross national income — the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country — and adjusted regularly. The United States and Germany each underwrite 16.34 percent of direct spending; the U.S. share had previously been slightly higher, as it had the biggest economy, but its share was reduced under Trump, at his insistence.

A significant portion of the U.S. share goes to operating the Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet operations, according to the Congressional Research Service. The United States contributed about $406 million in Trump’s last year in office, though President Biden sought to boost that to $482 million in fiscal year 2022.

Those numbers are a rounding error in the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget. What Trump is really referring to is indirect spending — what NATO members spend on their own defense.

Trump claimed NATO members were “delinquent,” but that was not the case. NATO members are supposed to meet a guideline of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024 — a process that had started before Trump became president.

He also often asserted NATO spending was at a low point when he came into office, but that’s also not true. It had fallen after the end of the Cold War but had started rising sharply after 2014, after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine. NATO estimates that European NATO members and Canada added $130 billion in cumulative defense spending through 2020, in 2015 dollars, as an increase over 2016 spending. NATO also estimates that the cumulative figure will rise to $400 billion through 2024.

“There would be no NATO if I didn’t act strongly and swiftly.”

In reality, Trump repeatedly told aides he wanted to leave NATO.

“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,” the New York Times reported in 2019. That reporting was confirmed when Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton published a memoir in 2020 that described Trump as repeatedly saying he wanted to quit the alliance, saying at one point, “I don’t give a s--- about NATO.” Bolton said he had to convince Trump not to quit NATO in the middle of a 2018 summit.

Trump’s former chief of staff John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, was also described as saying that “one of the most difficult tasks he faced with Trump was trying to stop him from pulling out of NATO.”

When Trump ran for reelection, it was generally feared he would pull out of the alliance if he was reelected. In a fit of pique at Germany, Trump in 2020 ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops, about one-third of the force based there. When Biden became president, he quickly reversed the plan and kept the troops there.

“Also, it was me that got Ukraine the very effective antitank busters (Javelins) when the previous Administration was sending blankets.”

Trump yet again minimizes the materiel provided to Ukraine by Barack Obama’s administration. While the Obama administration did not send lethal aid, it in 2015 provided Ukraine more than $120 million in security assistance and had pledged an additional $75 million worth of equipment including UAVs, armored Humvee vehicles, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices and medical supplies, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Many of these same items were provided by the Trump administration but in March 2018; the White House also approved the sale of Javelin missiles, a shoulder-fired precision missile system designed to destroy tanks, other armored vehicles and helicopters. One issue the Obama administration faced is that some U.S. officials were concerned the Ukrainian military did not have the capability to handle weapons such as Javelin antitank missiles, but it achieved that capability by the time Trump became president.

Ironically, Foreign Policy magazine reported, Trump initially did not want to provide Javelins to Ukraine, but eventually aides convinced him that it could be good for U.S. business. Nevertheless, the sale was mostly symbolic. At the time, the Trump administration insisted that Javelins could not be deployed in a conflict zone, so they were stored in western Ukraine, far from the front lines of the ongoing conflict against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In a call on July 25, 2019, Trump asked for “a favor” after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was ready to buy more Javelins. That favor involved launching an investigation of Joe Biden — which led to Trump’s first impeachment. As part of his effort to pressure Zelensky, Trump placed a hold on aid to Ukraine — $250 million in aid through the Defense Department and $141 million in aid through the State Department — that had already been appropriated.

U.S. officials became increasingly frantic about the Ukraine aid freeze because the 2019 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, after which the appropriation would expire. The hold was finally lifted in mid-September, only after intense pressure from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, but it takes time for the U.S. government to transfer such funds. It turned out that about $35 million of the aid could not be disbursed by the Sept. 30 deadline. For the money to go through, Congress had to pass a law extending the deadline to the fiscal 2020 year.

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