Opinion: Trump’s NATO Gaffe Proves He Shouldn’t Get Elected

Donald Trump’s latest gaffe — this one about NATO — has ignited a firestorm of responses. There was proper focus on some aspects of his comment. I see something else, though, perhaps not as dangerous but still troubling, and clear markers for why a person of such character does not deserve a place near the levers of power.

We should define the term gaffe. Most people associate it, especially of late, with President Joe Biden’s misstatements and slips of memory. Let’s accept the fact that both candidates are elderly and that the 2024 election is likely to be full of so many senior moments on both sides that any evaluation based on memory will be a wash.

Other things should be of greater concern: Do they understand how our government works? Do they understand the complexities of domestic policy issues and the intricacies of international relations? Do they surround themselves with advisers equipped with firsthand knowledge who are capable, qualified, thoughtful, concerned and more pro-democracy than pro-party, whose loyalty is to their country rather than a figurehead?

Trump fails on all these counts and more, as his comment readily illustrates.

For the record, at a political rally in South Carolina last weekend, Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee, said he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to “delinquent countries in Europe he believes aren’t spending enough on defense. He described a meeting, apparently while president, in which he responded to an ally about NATO funding.

“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 gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.’”

The audience, blindly faithful as ever, applauded.

Media focus was largely twofold: the recklessness of such a comment (the White House called it unhinged) and descriptions of how NATO functions, its purpose and its value as an international alliance.

The 31 members of NATO are supposed to meet a defense spending target of at least 2% of gross domestic product, terms negotiated for every NATO nation by the Obama administration. They don’t pay the money to NATO as if there is some sort of bank account; they invest it in their own armed forces.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly emphasized the importance of meeting the 2% benchmark, and several countries have increased their defense budgets in response to emerging security challenges, such as Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the threat of terrorism.

Only 11 members have reached that benchmark, according to NATO estimates, and that has long been a source of tension with the United States, whose armed forces form the core of the alliance’s military power.

However, the goal is voluntary. There is no debt or “delinquency” involved.

Trump has a long history of misrepresenting NATO, going back before his presidency, because he doesn’t understand how it works. He seems to think of it as “some sort of protection racket,” wrote Tom Nichols in The Atlantic, “in which our European allies come to Washington like quivering shopkeepers and make an offering to the local mob boss from their weekly receipts.”

How ironic that the Allies founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after World War II to stop the expansion of Soviet control as Eastern Europe was coming under the Kremlin’s firm grip. The alliance’s first secretary-general, British Gen. Hasting Ismay, said the goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” The often-repeated comment highlights how a fear of Russia’s expansion has been part of the alliance’s DNA from the beginning. Yet here is Trump, practically inviting Russia to “come on in.”

It’s one thing to say that some NATO countries aren’t contributing their share. It’s another thing entirely to encourage Russia to do whatever it wants. I can’t imagine any other president saying that in public. And yet those rally-goers applauded.

Surely the comment was music to the ears of Russian President Vladimir Putin or any real or would-be dictator anywhere on the planet. Here we have the potential leader of the free world threatening to abandon a role invoked by treaty, meaning your word of honor. NATO’s common defense clause, known as Article 5, states simply that an attack on one member is an attack on all. It has only been invoked once: on Sept 12, 2001. The only time the NATO alliance invoked its collective defense pact was when we, the United States, were attacked by terrorists. Our NATO allies went to war with us and stayed with us for 20 years.

I wonder how Trump’s faithful rally attendees might have reacted if he had bothered to mention that little detail. The fact a former president and now a presidential candidate again seeks to abandon a position of global power and the United States’ role as the leader of freedom and democracy, one that NATO allies upheld, should register among those so-called patriots as entirely abhorrent.

Two other things stand out in Trump’s comment. Neither has gotten much consideration in mainstream coverage, but they should.

Pay The Bills

“You gotta pay your bills,” Trump told his audience.

Where does someone notorious for skipping out on his debts get to tell anyone to pay their bills? Over the last 40 years, no major U.S. company has filed for bankruptcy more than Donald Trump’s companies (six times). They weren’t personal bankruptcies but corporate ones — Chapter 11, which lets a company stay in business while shedding massive amounts of debt owed to banks, employees and suppliers.

For someone who says he cares about the American worker, Trump has been sued countless times by those same blue-collar workers for welching on what he owes them.

Yet he’s got the gall to say Europe must pay its bills. Trump is the last guy to talk about fiscal trustworthiness.

He’s not even paying his legal bills. Someone else is.

We should support someone who says people should pay their bills when he doesn’t pay his own bills? I’ll keep that in mind the next time a kleptomaniac tells me not to be a thief.

Many People Are Saying

Trump has a telltale sign when he’s lying. No, it’s not when his lips are moving. It’s his long history of citing anonymous sources. That’s a tipoff.

Trump began his comment, “One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said…”

Really? Which country? Tell us so we can ask that leader if he really “stood up” and asked that question.

Of course, a liar would tap dance with an answer like, “Well, I don’t want to say who because I don’t want to embarrass them.”

This, from a guy who has never hesitated to demean anyone, whether a disabled reporter or a military veteran.

Of course he won’t say which leader or which country because he’s lying. No one told him that. It never happened.

What’s laughable here is how Trump has railed in the past about anonymous sources. “Anonymous Sources are really starting to BURN the media,” he tweeted back in 2018. “The fact is that many anonymous sources don’t even exist. They are fiction made up by the Fake News reporters.”

“Do you ever notice they never write the names of people anymore?” Trump said in a 2019 speech to the National Association of Realtors. “Everything is ‘a source says.’ There is no source. The person doesn’t exist. The person’s not alive. It’s bullshit, OK? It’s bullshit.”

“When you see ‘anonymous source,’” he tweeted, “stop reading the story, it is fiction!”

Does that mean we should stop listening?

“I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”

Yet Trump regularly says “many people are saying” without ever saying who these people are.

What’s your preference here? Pot meet kettle, practice what you preach, psychological projection?

Yes, media outlets use anonymous sources. Most of us see a place for them. Every respectable news outlet notes in its employee policy that reporters should strive first to seek sources who can be identified. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had a story shelved because a source I was using had asked not to be identified. The editors wouldn’t run the piece… until I found a second source. Kudos to them.

Reporters go to great lengths to verify the information they receive from unnamed sources, and they will typically explain why a source requested anonymity. They’re not authorized to talk. They fear for their jobs. Or worse.

Reporters strive to verify how a source knows the information being provided, whether they have direct knowledge, were told by people with direct knowledge or saw documents or other evidence.

Rare is the anonymous source who is anonymous to the reporter. Bob Woodward’s Watergate source, Deep Throat, may have been anonymous to the public but not to Woodward, who knew Mark Felt well. Typically a journalist knows his or her anonymous source thanks to a relationship built on trust “that develops over time as information is provided or, in some cases, exchanged.”

And here’s another thing: When media outlets get it wrong, they let their readers, viewers and listeners know it. They announce or publish that they made an error and corrected it.

I haven’t checked, but I’ll bet you’d have to do quite a lot of digging to find a time when Trump said to any of his rally-goers, “I was wrong.” A “rare admission,” is how one book author described a Trump mea culpa.

Some may sneer at this, but if you do, I wonder if you’re a Trump supporter unwilling to give a pass to journalists but more than willing to give Trump a pass for doing the same thing.

“Many people are saying.”

You can call it “fraudulent misrepresentation,” a common legal term in contract law, a “distancing qualifier,” “deceptive misrepresentation” or “conspiracism.”

In the end, it’s what Trump calls it: bullshit, and Trump uses the phrase or similar verbiage so often it might as well be his epithet.

Trump’s comments about NATO are far more dangerous than the mental gaffes attributable to age — either his or Biden’s — and on far too many levels for any honest broker to accept. And yet many people do, or they don’t care. Or maybe they don’t see it.

I do not doubt that most voters among Trump’s fervent flock try to live honorably, with integrity, and try to be productive members of society. They mean well and try to be decent human beings. These are all things Trump has repeatedly demonstrated he is not.

If we were talking about any other person running for president who said what Donald Trump said and has said, who is as two-faced as Donald Trump is and has been, these same voters would want him ridden out on a rail.

Many of those voters surely remember a time when Reagan Republicans would have brutally, shamefully and rightfully excoriated and ended the political career of anyone making such comments about NATO.

So much for days of the “evil empire.”

Our failure to hold Trump accountable for his words and actions, to simply dismiss them, as some lawmakers have, undermines the values upon which our country was founded. So many have done it for so long that Trump’s bombastic puffery is no longer unsettling when, in reality, his continued stream of destructive language and reckless behavior should be more alarming today than ever. At what point does it finally sink in: “Does this guy know what the hell he is saying?”

As we often joked in my neighborhood about someone whose boasting regularly made him look foolish: “Every time you open your mouth, you weaken the nation.”

That’s Trump in a nutshell.

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