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Bolton says Trump might have pulled the U.S. out of NATO if he had been reelected

The former national security adviser said Trump came very close to leaving NATO in 2018, and Russian President Vladimir Putin “was waiting for that.”

National security adviser John R. Bolton and White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham listen as President Donald Trump participates in a meeting with Amir of the State of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani on July 9, 2019, in the Oval Office at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Former national security adviser John Bolton told The Washington Post Friday that he thinks former president Donald Trump would have pulled the United States out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had he been reelected in 2020.

Bolton, in an interview with Post opinions editor at large Michael Duffy, said the former president came close to pulling the United States out of NATO in 2018, a claim he originally made in a memoir published in 2020. In his book, Bolton wrote that he had to convince Trump not to quit NATO in the middle of a 2018 summit.

On Friday, Bolton, who served as a top Trump adviser from 2018 to 2019, offered more details on their conversations that day, saying he “had my heart in my throat at that NATO meeting.”

“I didn’t know what the president would do,” Bolton said. “He called me up to his seat seconds before he gave the speech. And I said, look, go right up to the line, but don’t go over it. I sat back down. I had no idea what he’d do.”

Bolton said he thought Trump would “put his foot over it, but at least he didn’t withdraw then.”

“In a second Trump term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO,” Bolton said. “And I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was waiting for that.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday responded to Bolton’s comments, saying they highlighted “another reason the American people are grateful — the majority of the American people — that President Biden has not taken a page out of his predecessor’s playbook as it relates to global engagement and global leadership, because certainly we could be in a different place.”

“I mean, there’s no question that the strength and unity of NATO has been a powerful force in this moment,” Psaki added.

In a statement, Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, dismissed Bolton’s criticism and said the former adviser “is only happy when America is at war.”

“President Trump led America into one of the most peaceful times in U.S. history,” Budowich said. “John Bolton is just mad he was fired.”

Bolton’s remarks Friday offer new insights into Trump’s views on NATO. During his presidency, Trump frequently sought to undermine the alliance, accusing its members of being “delinquents” and repeatedly telling aides he wanted to leave it. According to the New York Times, Trump told his top national security officials that he did not understand why the military alliance existed, and often described it as a drain on the U.S.

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, one of Trump’s former chiefs of staff, has also been described as saying that “one of the most difficult tasks he faced with Trump was trying to stop him from pulling out of NATO.”

Trump has recently tried to revise his history with NATO, saying Monday that there “would be no NATO” if it hadn’t been for him.

“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,” Trump said in a statement. “There would be no NATO if I didn’t act strongly and swiftly.”

While Trump accused NATO members of being “delinquent,” that was not the case, according to The Post’s Fact Checker. The guideline for defense spending by NATO members is at least 2 percent of each nation’s gross domestic product by 2024 — a process that started before Trump became president.

The alliance is funded through 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 and adjusted regularly. Because the United States has the biggest economy, it historically has spent more on NATO, but that share was reduced under the Trump administration, at his insistence. 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.

Bolton, who has become a vocal critic of his former boss, recently drew Trump’s ire after telling conservative network Newsmax that the former president “barely knew where Ukraine was.” Bolton, in that interview, also denied that Trump was tough on Russia, and claimed that the former president complained about any sanctions on Russian oligarchs in the United States. Bolton has also said Trump “did not” do a better job with Russia than President Biden has.

In response to those statements, a spokesman for Trump told the Hill that Bolton was fired “because he believes anything less than war is not enough.”

“President Trump ensured peace during his administration and ended wars, making Bolton irrelevant,” the spokesman said.