CLEVELAND, Ohio—Republican lawmakers are criticizing Donald Trump for suggesting he would only offer military support to a NATO member country invaded by Russia if the country was meeting its defense spending obligations in the alliance.
Trump’s comments to the New York Times in an interview published Wednesday evening led some lawmakers to excoriate the Republican presidential candidate’s statements and others to stress the importance of the alliance and adhering to the Article Five principle of collective defense.
"It’s utterly disastrous," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), an Air Force veteran, when asked about the revelations of the Times interview at a foreign policy forum hosted by Politico at the Republican National Convention on Thursday. "Comments like this are not only ill-informed. They are dangerous."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), once a 2016 presidential candidate, called on Trump to correct his statements during his primetime remarks on Thursday evening at the conclusion of the party’s convention.
"The GOP nominee for president is essentially telling Russians/other bad actors the US is not fully committed to supporting NATO alliance," Graham wrote on Twitter. "NATO has been the most successful organization in modern history to provide collective defense for democracies."
Trump has come under fire for his criticism of NATO and friendly statements toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, and scrutiny surrounding the candidate only increased following the publication of the Times article Wednesday. When Trump was asked whether he would provide immediate military aid to one of the Baltic states if Russia were to invade as it has previously done in Georgia and Ukraine, Trump noted that several NATO member countries "aren’t paying their bills."
When asked if NATO member countries could count on the United States to come to their defense if attacked by Russia, Trump responded, "Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes." He did not say what he would do if the country was not fulfilling its obligations.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who also participated in the Politico event on Thursday, did not directly criticize Trump for his comments on NATO but instead emphasized the importance of and need to strengthen the alliance. Cotton said that he had only read reports of the Times article but not the interview itself.
"NATO is the most successful security alliance and our objective should be to strengthen NATO," Cotton said, adding that the United States should encourage its European partners to meet the alliance guidelines to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense.
"We also need to stand by our Article Five guarantee of NATO," Cotton said, noting that the only time the principle has been invoked was following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States.
Cotton also said that if a Trump administration were to shift toward a positive relationship with Russia, the move would amount to "a continuation of Barack Obama’s policies" exhibited in the failed Russian reset orchestrated by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009, following Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
Trump has described Putin as a strong leader and told the Times he would "get along very well" with the Russian president.
"Putin is not a friend to the United States," Cotton said Thursday. "Whatever happens in this presidential election, I, for one, want to make sure that we stand by NATO and we stand for countries like Ukraine and Georgia [who face] Russian aggression, and recognize Vladimir Putin as the adversary he is."
Kinzinger, who has not endorsed Trump and has been frank in his criticism of the candidate, expressed continued skepticism of Trump’s praise of Putin and his larger lack of understanding of what Republicans believe to be America’s role on the global stage.
"This is not Republicanism. I was drawn to this party largely because of foreign policy," Kinzinger said Thursday. "What you see right now is a candidate for president that, in my mind, doesn’t understand the role of America, which is to be an example of self-governance."
Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), a vehement critic of Trump, released a statement affirming America’s allegiance to its NATO allies following the publication of the interview.
"Our friends should draw strength and our adversaries should take pause from this simple fact: Americans keep our word. As Mr. Putin revives Soviet-style aggression and the threat of violent Islam looms over European and American cities, the United States stands with our NATO allies," Sasse stated.
Trump has repeatedly said he would want to make our allies pay more for defense costs and focus more on correcting domestic problems. He has adopted a critical tone on NATO, labeling it obsolete and suggesting that member nations who don’t pay their "fair share" should be forced out of the alliance. Critics have characterized his foreign policy as isolationist.
The concern about Trump’s attitude toward Putin has been amplified by the connections of some of his loyalists to Russia, including his foreign policy advisers Carter Page, an energy executive with ties to Russian gas company Gazprom, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has advocated for closer relations between the United States and Russia. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, worked for the Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Trump’s aides successfully pushed for softer language on Ukraine to be inserted in the Republican 2016 platform, according to a Washington Post report earlier this week. Trump allies worked to strip language from the platform calling for the United States to give lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to thwart Russian aggression.
Trump told the Times that he would not crack down on Turkey or authoritarian U.S. allies for efforts to purge political enemies or constrain civil liberties when asked about the failed military coup in Turkey last week.
"I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country," Trump said when asked whether he would press President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who targeted tens of thousands with firings and detentions following the coup, to make sure he’s acting lawfully.
"We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country—we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems," Trump explained. "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger."
Cotton’s statements on Thursday contradicted Trump’s message on how the United States should respond to threats to democracy in Turkey.
"Anytime you see a NATO ally that faces a coup, it is very much our business, especially a NATO ally that is at the crossroads of the war [in Syria]," Cotton said.
Trump’s comments on NATO and Turkey were not the only sources of controversy plaguing his campaign ahead of his remarks at the convention Thursday. Media personalities, politicians, and others were still reeling Thursday morning over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision not to endorse Trump during his primetime remarks at the convention the prior night. Cruz directed his viewers to "vote your conscience" amid pressure to endorse Trump.