Congress needs to take new steps to protect NATO after Donald Trump said he would “encourage” Russia to attack member countries that don’t meet their financial commitments, several Democratic senators said Monday.
The former president’s comments raised fresh concerns among NATO supporters that Trump could still dramatically undermine the pact without withdrawing if he returns to the White House next year. And allies who have reassured themselves that Trump can’t do anything radical if reelected need to be on watch.
“Everyone should be scared as hell,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Anybody who cares about American leadership, anyone who cares about protecting democracy, anybody who wants to take on authoritarians around the world should be scared to death by the fact that Donald Trump is telling us that if he was reelected president, he would throw our NATO allies to [Vladimir] Putin.”
Lawmakers touted defense policy legislation signed into law in December that prevents any president from withdrawing the U.S. from NATO without approval from the Senate or an act of Congress. Yet on Monday, Democrats acknowledged that the guardrail they threw up would have a limited effect on a president who is opposed to the alliance.
Trump, for example, could refuse to appoint a U.S. ambassador to NATO headquarters in Brussels, or order U.S. military commanders to dial back exercises with their NATO counterparts. He could even refuse to come to a country’s aid if it’s attacked.
Those moves fall short of pulling Washington out of the alliance, but they would certainly show that the administration was walking away from key commitments in Europe.
“He could just downgrade our participation … he won’t go to summits and the secretary of defense won’t go to defense ministerials” at NATO, said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Europe and NATO policy. “U.S. leadership will drop out and you just won’t see a lot of American faces.”