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U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Dec. 4, 2019, at the NATO summit in Watford, England. (AP) U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Dec. 4, 2019, at the NATO summit in Watford, England. (AP)

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Dec. 4, 2019, at the NATO summit in Watford, England. (AP)

Matthew Crowley
By Matthew Crowley March 6, 2024
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 6, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • Former President Donald Trump has criticized NATO since 1987. As a candidate and as president, Trump’s criticisms often appeared to be a negotiating tactic.
  • Although Trump’s comments have undermined the alliance, our review of his commentary found no clear account of Trump saying he would leave NATO.

  • John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser and now a Trump critic, told The Washington Post that he believes if Trump is elected, he will get out of the alliance. Other experts say what Trump will do is unclear.

  • Our mission: Help you be an informed participant in democracy. Learn more.

When former President Donald Trump said he’d let Russia "do whatever the hell they want" to NATO nations that didn’t pay for collective defense, he alarmed world leaders — and spurred President Joe Biden to imagine a world without the alliance.

Biden in February asked voters to contemplate this scenario — Trump winning the election and withdrawing the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"First of all, he doesn’t like NATO," Biden said at a Feb. 21 campaign event. "He wanted to pull out of it completely. He has no notion of its importance." 

Biden added, "Imagine what happens if this guy gets elected and steps out of NATO. Imagine what that does."

Recent polls show Americans support NATO. And political observers say Trump’s comments have undermined NATO, which may obliquely help Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long wanted to weaken the alliance. But is pulling out Trump’s plan?

Some former Trump advisers have said Trump nearly removed the U.S. from NATO and that U.S. involvement in the alliance could be in jeopardy if he wins reelection. As a 2024 candidate, he’s again raising doubts about the organization’s merits, but he hasn’t said for sure whether he’d pull the U.S. out. 

We asked the Trump campaign for comment and didn’t hear back.

Experts cautioned against pinning Trump to a single position, given his unpredictability.

As president, "he didn't follow through on everything he said he would do and changed his mind often," said Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Case in point: In 2016, Trump repeatedly said that NATO was "obsolete" or "outdated." 

As president, he remained skeptical of NATO but flip-flopped on its relevance. During an April 2017 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump said NATO was doing more to fight terrorism and "it’s no longer obsolete."

Here’s Trump’s history when talking about NATO and what it could mean for the alliance in a potential second term.

 "If it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO’’ 

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a news conference after a summit of heads of state and government July 12, 2018, at NATO headquarters in Brussels. (AP)

Trump’s position that allies should spend more has been fairly consistent since the 1980s.

In a 1987 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Trump said, "If you look at the payments that we're making to NATO, they're totally disproportionate with everybody else's." 

In his 2000 book, Trump wrote that exiting NATO would save the United States "millions of dollars" a year. 

He turned the observation into a threat as a presidential candidate.

"Either they have to pay up for past deficiencies or they have to get out," Trump said at an April 2016 campaign stop in Racine, Wisconsin

"And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO," he concluded.

At an August 2016 rally in Jacksonville, Florida, Trump framed the issue as a negotiator would, saying, "I don’t want to get rid of NATO, but you always have to be prepared to walk. It’s possible."

He reenacted an interview with The New York Times for the crowd:

"They said, ‘What happens if one of these countries’ — take a smaller one that nobody in this room’s ever heard of — ‘gets attacked by Russia? Are you saying you’re not gonna protect ’em?’ I say, ‘Well, let me ask you: Have they paid? Have they paid?’ Right? ‘Have they paid?’"

Almost eight years later, Trump’s sentiment is similar. In February, Trump told supporters a similar anecdote about telling an unnamed NATO country leader that he would "encourage" Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to a NATO member country that didn’t "pay." 

Some Trump allies dismissed Trump’s comments as off-the-cuff remarks. Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who was former Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser, told Politico he did not take Trump "literally."

Former Trump advisers said Trump wanted, or will, get out of NATO

Some fears that Trump would withdraw from NATO stem from comments by former Trump advisers.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who is now a Trump critic, wrote in his 2020 book that during an August 2019 videoconference about U.S. assistance to Ukraine, Trump said, "I don’t give a s--- about NATO." Trump then ordered Pence to call NATO’s Stoltenberg to tell him the alliance should pay Ukraine $250 million in assistance for weapons, equipment, intelligence support and training to build up Ukraine’s military and to deter Russia. 

Trump has said he was tough on Russia, and some moves bear that out. For example, the additional $1.4 billion he sought in fiscal 2108 for the European Deterrence Initiative, which supports European military readiness to counter Russian aggression, was a 41% increase from the allocation during President Barack Obama’s final year in office. 

But rhetorically, he’s been friendlier to Russia than his predecessors. In June 2018,  he advocated for restoring Russia to the G-7 after it was expelled in 2014 over annexing Crimea. Also in 2018, Trump, against his advisers’ wishes, congratulated Putin on his reelection victory. Trump was inconsistent about whether he thought Russia meddled in the election, but he has said that he believes Putin’s denial of Russian involvement. 

Bolton told The Washington Post in a February story that he believes Trump will seek to kill the alliance.

"He’s never lost the desire to get out," Bolton said.

Multiple former Trump advisers told Jim Sciutto, CNN's chief national security analyst, for Sciutto’s upcoming book that the United States may exit NATO if Trump wins reelection. Sciutto quotes John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, as saying Trump "saw absolutely no point in NATO."

Ivo Daalder, a U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama, in a January essay for Politico pointed to Trump’s comments in 2020 to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which showed the former president saying the alliance was finished.

"You need to understand that if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you and to support you," Trump said, according to French European Commissioner Thierry Breton. Trump then added, "By the way, NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will quit NATO."

When Trump said the U.S. remained committed to NATO 

At times, Trump spoke publicly about NATO’s importance in the context of wanting allies to spend more on their own defense. Member nations are expected to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense, a show of military readiness, by 2024.

"I see NATO as a good thing to have," Trump told The Washington Post’s editorial board in 2016. "No, I don’t want to pull (out of it)." 

As president, Trump kept his promise to ask allies to pay more for joint defense.

At a 2018 NATO summit, Trump said "the United States’ commitment to NATO is very strong" and then praised allies for putting up additional money.

In a 2019 speech at the Pentagon, Trump said, "We will be with NATO 100%, but as I told the countries, you have to step up."

In 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, NATO country leaders agreed to the 2% GDP goal. As of July 2023, NATO reported that 11 of 31 member countries had met the goal: Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

NATO’s future could change under Trump, even if he doesn’t withdraw

In 2023, Congress passed legislation to ban a president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO. The legislation states that withdrawing from NATO would require approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate or an act of Congress.

Trump was vague about NATO in an "Agenda47" video, a reference to becoming the 47th president, posted on his campaign website in 2023: "Finally, we have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO's purpose and NATO's mission." 

Still, his comments made allied countries nervous.

"The very essence of NATO is America’s commitment to European security and its promise to defend its European partners," said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "If Europeans lose faith in this commitment, the alliance will be, for all intents and purposes, dead — even if it appears America remains a member and it putters along in its Brussels headquarters."

It would take more than tough talk to break NATO ties.

"Relationships between NATO members are pretty well institutionalized in defense, diplomatic, and economic networks and so can withstand a good amount of pressure," Kavanagh said. 

RELATED: Why Donald Trump’s boast that he got ‘delinquent’ NATO allies to ‘pay up’ is misleading

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Our Sources

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