The White House has called Trump’s remarks “appalling and unhinged”, while NATO's general secretary Jens Stoltenberg says they have put lives in danger
Former President Donald Trump said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member country that doesn’t meet the spending guidelines on defence .
It is a stunning admission that he would not abide by the collective-defence clause at the heart of the alliance, if reelected in the 2024 presidential election.
NATO's leader responded by saying Mr Trump's remarks would put the safety of US troops and allies at risk – insisting that an attack on any of the alliance's 31 members would be "met with a united and forceful response".
The former president's comments were of particular concern to the pact's eastern frontline countries such as like Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where fears have been running high since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
“NATO was busted until I came along,” Mr Trump said at a campaign rally in Conway, South Carolina on Saturday.
“I said, ‘Everybody’s gonna pay.’ They said, ‘Well, if we don’t pay, are you still going to protect us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They couldn’t believe the answer.”
Mr Trump also said “one of the presidents of a big country” at one point asked him whether the US would still defend the country if they were invaded by Russia even if they “don’t pay”.
“No, I would not protect you,” he recalled telling that president. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”
The White House later called Mr Trump’s remarks “appalling and unhinged”. Touting his successor's efforts to bolster the alliance, spokesperson Andrew Bates said: “President Biden has restored our alliances and made us stronger in the world because he knows every commander in chief’s first responsibility is to keep the American people safe and hold true to the values that unite us."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “NATO remains ready and able to defend all allies. Any attack on NATO will be met with a united and forceful response.
"Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” Mr Stoltenberg added in his statement that he expects that, “regardless of who wins the presidential election, the US will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”
"Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged – and it endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home."
At the core of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the promise of collective defence — that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all the nations in the alliance.
Trump has long complained about the amount other countries in NATO spend on defence compared with the United States and has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the US from NATO.
But his comments Saturday are his most direct indication he does not intend to defend NATO allies from Russian attack if he is reelected.
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Trump has for years inaccurately described how NATO funding works.
NATO has a target that each member country spends a minimum of 2% of gross domestic product on defence, and most countries are not meeting that target.
But the figure is a guideline and not a binding contract, nor does it create “bills”; member countries haven’t been failing to pay their share of NATO’s common budget to run the organization.
As president, Trump privately threatened multiple times to withdraw the US from NATO, according to The New York Times.
Trump has described NATO as “obsolete” and has aligned himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to weaken the alliance.
Trump has long praised Putin and went as far as to side with the Russian leader over the US intelligence community over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.