Donald Trump has said he would “encourage” Russia to attack any Nato member that fails to pay its bills as part of the Western military alliance.
Trump said he had once told a leader he would not protect a nation behind on its payments, and would “encourage” the aggressors to “do whatever the hell they want”.
Members of Nato commit to defend any nation in the bloc that gets attacked.
The White House called the comments “appalling and unhinged”.
Donald Trump said he had warned Nato allies that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” if alliance members failed to meet defence spending targets, highlighting the risk to the military pact if he wins a new term in the White House.
But Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, on Sunday said the alliance remained “ready and able to defend all allies” in the face of military threats.
“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,” he said. “I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the US will remain a strong and committed Nato ally.”
Trump’s comments came during a campaign rally ahead of the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina this month, which could help him to seal his party’s nomination to contest the November election against Joe Biden.
The former US president, who has long been a critic of Nato and who had warm relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin, told his supporters that “Nato was busted until I came along”. He said that during his term in office he had insisted to European allies that “everybody’s going to pay”.
Trump recalled that one president of a Nato member country had asked him if the US would defend it in the event of a Russian attack.
“I would not protect you,” Trump said he responded. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You’ve got to pay. You’ve got to pay your bills,” he remembered saying.
Trump’s comments are a signal that, if elected president again, he might threaten the commitment to mutual defence that lies at the heart of the Nato alliance, at a time when fears of Russia have sharply increased in the wake of its war against Ukraine. The former president has recently pressed Congress to oppose the approval of new aid to Kyiv, which would be crucial on the battlefield.
Stoltenberg has said he expects “at least half” of its members to reach a self-imposed target of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. During a trip to Washington last month, he urged the US to restate its commitment to the alliance and said a divided Nato would mean “US power is diminished”.
Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, Poland’s defence minister, criticised Trump’s comments on Sunday. “No election campaign is an excuse for playing with the security of the alliance,” he said in a post on X.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said on X that “reckless statements on Nato’s security and [mutual defence] solidarity serve only Putin’s interest. They do not bring more security or peace to the world”.
Trump is the overwhelming favourite to win the Republican presidential nomination after victories in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary last month, and the Nevada caucus this week.
During the South Carolina rally, Trump also mocked the husband of Nikki Haley, his top rival for the Republican nomination. Michael Haley, a member of the Army National Guard, is currently deployed in Africa.
“What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone,” Trump said.
Trump’s bombastic warning to Nato members, and his barb aimed at a member of the military deployed overseas, are a reminder of the divisive rhetoric that is fuelling his campaign and energising the Republican base, but could be damaging with independent and swing voters.
Russia could attack a Nato country within 3 to 5 years, Denmark warns
Haley, who has sharpened her criticisms of Trump in recent weeks, said during a campaign stop in Lexington, South Carolina: “If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s licence, let alone to be president of the US,” she added.
In an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Haley accused Trump of siding with Russia over US allies.
“Now, we do want Nato allies to pull their weight,” she said. “But there are ways you can do that without sitting there and telling Russia, have your way with these countries.”
A White House spokesman said: “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.”
Trump, who is 77, has a slight edge in national polling averages measuring a head-to-head match-up against Biden, who is 81. The president’s re-election bid was rocked this week by the release of a report by special counsel Robert Hur on his handling of classified documents while he was vice-president under Barack Obama.
Hur did not issue any charges against Biden but cited the president’s “poor memory’, triggering new concerns about the president’s age and mental fitness.
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