Trump’s Threat to NATO Is the Scariest Kind of Gaffe: It’s Real

One prediction about the 2024 political season has already come true. The election year, to the delight of Donald Trump’s superfans and the dread of just about everyone else, is all about the former President: his trials, his feuds, his insufferable family. We learned this week that he wants his daughter-in-law, Lara, to become the co-chair of the Republican National Committee—she loyally promises to spend “every single penny” of the Party’s funds to elect him if that’s what it takes—and that Jared Kushner really doesn’t want to go back to the White House for a second Trump term. On Thursday, a judge in New York ruled that Trump’s criminal trial for allegedly paying hush money to a former porn actress and then lying about it will go forward in March, and a decision is expected any minute in a civil fraud case that could cost Trump’s business hundreds of millions of dollars. (The judge is “CORRUPT,” Trump insisted in a social-media post, repeating one of his favorite claims, but there’s so much else Trump-related going on, I’m not sure anyone noticed.) In Washington, the federal special counsel Jack Smith pleaded with the Supreme Court to act swiftly to get the other cases against Trump moving, too: “The public interest in a prompt trial is at its zenith where, as here, a former President is charged with conspiring to subvert the electoral process so that he could remain in office. The Nation has a compelling interest in seeing the charges brought to trial.”

Legal cliffhangers aside, Trump has demonstrated his remarkable continued ability to hijack the national conversation, warping and distorting not only America’s politics but also its foreign policy to suit his toxic personal mixture of dictator worship, blustery nationalism, and deep-seated skepticism about U.S. engagement in the world. Over the weekend, he delivered an anti-NATO rant at a campaign rally that sparked days of news coverage and outraged responses from his opponents. “I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,” he said, of Russia—all but inviting Vladimir Putin to attack European countries that did not, in Trump’s view, spend enough on their defense budgets. “You gotta pay!” The Secretary-General of NATO weighed in; so did the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who warned solemnly that “U.S. credibility is at stake.” Leaders from Poland and the Baltic states were officially alarmed; veterans of Trump’s White House, including his former national-security adviser John Bolton and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, cautioned, as they have many times before, that NATO is not likely to survive a second term of their former boss. In blistering remarks at the White House, on Tuesday, President Biden denounced Trump using some of his strongest language yet about his predecessor, whose threat to allies, he said, was “dumb,” “shameful,” “dangerous,” and “un-American.”

After days of this backlash, Trump appeared at another campaign rally on Wednesday night, where he, naturally, doubled down. He repeated his dubious account of having warned a fellow NATO leader about the consequences of not meeting the alliance’s commitment to spend two per cent of annual G.D.P. on defense. “Look, if they’re not going to pay, we’re not going to protect. O.K.?” he said.

As a matter of politics, none of it makes much sense. NATO is popular; support for Ukraine in its fight with Russia remains high even as Republicans have questioned how much aid to send. Americans loathe Putin, even after years of Trump’s suck-uppery and the recent awkward attempt at reputation laundering by Tucker Carlson. In terms of timing, Trump’s tirade could not have been worse, handing the gift of a major gaffe to Biden, at a time when the President is facing unwelcome questions about his age and mental fitness, thanks to the special counsel Robert Hur’s report calling him a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” And yet the lesson of the Trump years is that the conventional metrics of politics don’t apply to his actions—he is out to prove mastery over his party, not consistency in policy. He has shown once again that where he goes they will follow. When I went back and listened to his NATO remarks, the thing that struck me was the audience’s response: they clapped and cheered.

The larger backlash to Trump was not just about his words, as ignorant and dangerous as they were, but about the actual effect they are already having on Republicans in Congress, many of whom have gone from being staunch supporters of Ukraine in its existential fight against Russian invasion to refusing to send any more assistance because of Trump’s loud public opposition. (See: Graham, Lindsey.) When the Senate this week finally passed a bill requested by Biden months ago that would send nearly sixty billion dollars to Ukraine along with billions more for Israel and Taiwan, only twenty-two Senate Republicans voted for it. On the other side of the Capitol, Speaker Mike Johnson, a Trump acolyte who owes his job to the ex-President’s backing, all but refused to bring the legislation to a vote, then adjourned the House for a two-week recess.

In interviews after the Senate passage, the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, was strikingly open about the reason for his struggle to get even half of his fellow G.O.P. senators to go along with the bill: Trump. “It’s a political reaction led, obviously, by the likely nominee for President having a view and expressing a view on this,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju. “That’s why we are where we are.” He told The Hill that this week’s vote recalled the Senate’s 1941 vote to approve the Lend-Lease Act, which sent assistance to countries fighting Nazi Germany—and that, then as now, a majority of his party’s members had voted with the wrong side. In the early days of the Second World War, the problem was the Ohio senator Robert Taft, who was the leader of the Republicans’ considerable isolationist wing; today, it’s Trump.McConnell said that, with the ex-President actively making calls and lobbying senators to vote down the bill, the twenty-two Republican votes he managed to secure “seemed like a landslide.” Yeesh.

McConnell, whose own leadership has come under fire from a loud and growing minority of his increasingly Trumpified caucus, has famously not spoken with Trump since the violent aftermath of the 2020 election. And yet he and the dwindling remains of the Party establishment who refuse to get on board with Trump’s 2024 campaign repeatedly failed to act decisively against Trump when it might have mattered—by voting to convict him in the Senate impeachment trial that followed his efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat, or, more recently, by pushing through assistance to Ukraine months ago rather than agreeing to hold the aid hostage to far-right demands for a border deal that Trump was never going to agree to in an election year anyway.

McConnell’s willingness to complain publicly about Trump now, alas, is the tell—not a sign of an incipient battle for the soul of the Party but of a fight that has already been lost. This is also the explanation for the increasingly loud criticisms being lobbed at Trump by his one remaining opponent in the Republican primaries, the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, whose longshot campaign faces a death blow next week in her home state’s primary, where polls currently give Trump around two-thirds of the Republican vote. With little to lose, Haley has begun bashing away at Trump with a lacerating intensity that was missing from her earlier efforts. On Tuesday, she told NBC’s “Today” show that he was “diminished” and “unhinged.” That same day, she released a new ad showing Trump shaking Putin’s hand and smiling. The ad warns about the consequences of electing Trump to a second term: from “more record-breaking debt” to “a Russian victory that will bring more war.” “With Trump, it’s just more chaos,” the spot concludes.

A year ago, it might have appeared unthinkable that so many Republicans would abandon Ukraine just because Trump urged them to do so; a year from now, there is the not-implausible chance that when a reëlected President Trump demands that they make concessions to Putin, or pull back from commitments to our treaty allies in Europe, they will follow him in that, too. Consider yourself warned. ♦

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