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Trump told S.C. rally that he supports Russian aggression against NATO allies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former President Trump told a story while campaigning over the weekend. It was one of his characteristic tales in which everyone else addresses Trump as Sir. In the story, Trump pictured himself as president of the United States, talking with other leaders of NATO, the alliance in which the United States, Canada and many European nations commit to defend one another in case of attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, well, Sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us? I said, you didn't pay? You're delinquent? He said, yes, let's say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.

INSKEEP: NATO nations do not owe each other bills, although they do commit to spend money on self-defense. Now, there's no evidence that this story told by the former president ever took place in real life, but the remarks have renewed concern about Trump's view of U.S. alliances around the world. Tom Nichols joins us next. He's professor emeritus of national security affairs at the Naval War College, also a staff writer at The Atlantic. Welcome back.

TOM NICHOLS: Thanks, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to figure this out. It's a rambling story, not a coherent policy pronouncement. Is this anything?

NICHOLS: Oh, it's definitely something. When a former president - even if just something he pulls out of his imagination - says that he would encourage Russia to do whatever it wants to a NATO ally, that's - he's making it very clear what his state of mind is about the alliance and how he views Europe and his - it's also, I think, a marker of his ongoing affinity for Russia.

INSKEEP: Is this - does this fit, then, with other statements that he's made over the years?

NICHOLS: It's perfectly congruent. It's one of the few things that Trump has ever been consistent on. He has a whole grab bag of policies. You know, he turns on a dime when it suits him. But if there's a North Star in his policies, it's that he has a servile fascination with Russia and an intense, obsessive dislike of NATO. And so this fits right in with that.

INSKEEP: So let's figure out what this would mean if Donald Trump were president of the United States once again. I did notice that the United States Congress, after Trump questioned NATO during his first term, seemed concerned about this and actually passed a law which makes it harder for the United States or harder for the president to just unilaterally say we're no longer in NATO. Does that mean that the NATO alliance is guaranteed, regardless of who's president?

NICHOLS: No. The president is the - under Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution, the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. Congress can mandate that he can't simply exit a treaty but they cannot mandate because they can't direct - take his constitutional powers and direct the military, they can't mandate that he effectively assist our NATO allies in time of danger or attack. Now, if he doesn't, they could - I suppose you could argue they could impeach him for not doing his constitutional duty and observing treaties which are the law of the land and so on, but there are plenty of things a president can do simply through his command of the U.S. military to keep U.S. forces out of the way while, again, you know, getting on the phone and telling Russia to do whatever they want.

INSKEEP: Now, there's a couple of things here. One is, of course, NATO nations, they do have a commitment to spend 2% of their budgets on defense. Some of them do, some of them don't. That's a debate that goes back to the Obama administration, if not before. But I want to ask a larger question. Trump has expressed skepticism about U.S. alliances all around the world, and I'd like you to take a moment and just tell me why, if at all, those alliances are important. Is there some benefit the United States enjoys from having allies from Europe all the way over to Japan and South Korea and beyond?

NICHOLS: I think it's really important for Americans to understand that their freedom to move about the world, their freedom at home and their standard of living on a day-to-day basis is directly dependent on those alliances. The world functions on rules that are on the high seas and when it comes to commerce and travel and interstate activity, it functions on rules that are basically, you know, the Washington-Brussels rules of how things work. In a world where we are operating under the Beijing or Moscow rules, where things move at the sufferance of countries that don't mean us well. Americans, I think, would realize just how important those alliances are and they would see it in everything from prices to their safety overseas.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the alliances are what keep the United States in a dominant position in the world.

NICHOLS: Well, it's not just dominant, but it's that it keeps the global system of trade and cooperation stable and steady.

INSKEEP: Tom...

NICHOLS: And that's important.

INSKEEP: Tom Nichols of The Atlantic. Thanks so much.

NICHOLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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