Republican lawmakers, including those ostensibly in favor of U.S. aid to Ukraine and America's commitment to NATO, defended the comments of former President Donald Trump, where he encouraged Russia to do "whatever the hell they want" to alliance members that fail to meet the spending criteria.
"NATO was busted until I came along," Trump said at a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 10. "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."
NATO allies reached an agreement following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 to reverse the trend of reducing defense spending implemented after the Cold War and aim to allocate 2% of their respective GDPs to defense by 2024.
Trump recounted a conversation with "the president of a major country" who asked whether the U.S. would defend them if invaded by Russia despite their insufficient contributions.
"No, I would not protect you," Trump 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 Trump’s remarks "appalling and unhinged" on Feb. 10 and touted President Joe Biden’s efforts to bolster the alliance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg responded to Trump's statement, saying that "any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk."
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham defended Trump's comments in an interview with the New York Times.
"All I can say is while Trump was president nobody invaded anybody. I think the point here is to, in his way, to get people to pay," Graham said.
Graham has been outspoken in his public support for Ukraine and NATO but has also unfailingly backed the former president.
"I have zero concern, because (Trump)'s been president before. I know exactly what he has done and will do with the NATO alliance," Republican Senator Marco Rubio told CNN.
Both Graham and Rubio were initially strongly critical of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, but ultimately threw their full support behind him along with the overwhelming majority of the party.
Other defenders of Trump pointed out that Russia's initial military aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022 occurred under Democratic presidents.
"Strength, not weakness, deters aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine twice under (presidents) Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but not under Donald Trump," said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, known for his hawkish foreign policy positions.
Others brushed off the statement as yet another example for Trump's penchant for hyperbole, but said it did not necessarily translate into real policy plans.
Trump authorized the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine as president, a move that Obama declined to make.
NATO members did actually increase their defense spending during Trump's presidency, which allies of the former president often cite, although spending has grown by much larger margins since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.