We should flag this NYT piece as a heads-up, so that it doesn’t come as too much of a shock when the decision to withdraw from NATO is eventually made.
Although it wouldn’t be a shock in any meaningful sense at this point, would it? To the contrary: Trump’s antipathy to NATO is so patent and longstanding that it’d be surprising if his presidency ends without him trying to withdraw from the treaty. The recent one-two punch of retreat from Syria (quickly) and Afghanistan (more slowly) fills the mind with thoughts of further withdrawals to come. And no candidate for that is so obvious as his favorite whipping boy in Brussels. A strong NATO and a strong Russia is an either/or proposition. Trump’s preference on that question has always been clear.
If you thought the release of the Mueller report was shaping up to be a sh*tstorm of unprecedented magnitude now, imagine some sort of formal allegation of collusion being made while POTUS is busy trying to cripple the chief deterrent to Russian expansionism in Europe.
Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set…
Russia’s meddling in American elections and its efforts to prevent former satellite states from joining the alliance have aimed to weaken what it views as an enemy next door, the American officials said. With a weakened NATO, they said, Mr. Putin would have more freedom to behave as he wishes, setting up Russia as a counterweight to Europe and the United States.
An American withdrawal from the alliance would accomplish all that Mr. Putin has been trying to put into motion, the officials said — essentially, doing the Russian leader’s hardest and most critical work for him…
[J]ust when officials think the issue of NATO membership has been settled, Mr. Trump again brings up his desire to leave the alliance.
Normally when the Times drops something splashy and Russia-related on him, POTUS runs to Twitter to call it fake news. I note with interest that there’s no tweet denying this story as of 2:30 ET.
This line made me laugh: “When Mr. Trump first raised the possibility of leaving the alliance, senior administration officials were unsure if he was serious.” Some of the Times’s sources compared it to his endless chatter about seizing Iraq’s oil as “compensation” for ousting Saddam but I don’t think the two are analogous. To follow through on the latter would present all sorts of knotty problems, starting with what to do when the Iraqi government says no. Withdrawing from NATO is something he could attempt to do via a pen stroke.
And there’s no warning about when that stroke might come. Trump similarly grumbled to aides off and on through his first year in office about their delays in launching the trade war he wanted. Then, one morning last year, he woke up and declared to the public that steel and aluminum tariffs were on the way. NATO withdrawal will proceed the same way, I’m sure. There’ll be no lengthy logistical deliberations with the Pentagon, no roundtable sessions with Bolton and Pompeo and Shanahan about the pros and cons. Trump doesn’t like face-to-face confrontation, and pushing his team to pull out of NATO would get him plenty of that. The way this’ll happen is that he’ll be on the toilet one morning and decide that today’s the day. The fateful tweet will go out and advisors at the White House and Pentagon will be left to decide whether to resign in protest Mattis-style or scramble to implement the policy.
I think the eventual polling when he tries to withdraw will look a lot like the polling right now on the wall. In fact, to some extent it already does. Note the Democratic trend line from this Pew survey taken in 2017:
That Democratic spike is due in part no doubt to anger at Putin for meddling in the 2016 campaign but partly too it’s being driven by a backlash to Trump. He was a NATO skeptic on the trail that year, they hate him, so naturally they’ve rediscovered NATO’s virtues to counter him. Democratic feelings about a border wall have developed in much the same way. What the poll above doesn’t capture, though, is the inevitable Republican cave-in on NATO when POTUS finally pulls the plug and the right goes into wagon-circling mode. That’ll be wall-like too, as Republican support for a border wall has strengthened as Trump has dug in. Eventually, I think, we’ll end up with polling on NATO looking a lot like polling on Trump’s job approval. A majority of the public will support staying in the treaty, with Democrats overwhelmingly in favor and Republicans strongly but less overwhelmingly opposed. (There’ll be a hawkish minority within the GOP that continues to back NATO, after all.)
But maybe I’m underestimating American voters’ skepticism. NATO is a prisoner of its own success: Because it’s been so useful in checking Russian ambitions, it’s easy for younger voters especially to conclude that Russia has no ambitions. A mostly peaceful Europe and a Russia “content” to nibble at Ukraine is simply How The World Is. Why should we continue to pour money into an unnecessary hedge against that, particularly when European partners aren’t meeting their defense-spending obligations? I figure apologists for withdrawal will divide into four groups once it happens. There’ll be the group that wants whatever Trump wants, irrespective of the merits; there’ll be the group that thinks Russia simply isn’t a threat (and also sees no application of NATO potentially to Chinese expansionism); there’ll be the group that concedes Russia is a threat but believes NATO without the United States is very much equal to the task; and, my favorite, there’ll be the group that thinks a little more Russian-fascist influence over the godless leftists in western Europe might be good for everyone.
Put them all together, though, and support for withdrawal will still be a minority position. Within Congress too: Although any indication by the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military that he’s done with NATO would send Europe into crisis, this is one of the few policies on which I think Senate Republicans really would join with Democrats to defeat Trump soundly. POTUS should consider carefully what that rebuke will feel like and how the GOP will go forward before he does anything.
Exit question: Who’s leaking all of these hair-raising Trump/Russia stories to the NYT lately? There was the one about the FBI investigating him for working with Russia after he fired Comey, then the one about him being weirdly secretive about what he and Putin said to each other in face-to-face chats, now this one about him wanting to grant Putin’s fondest foreign-policy wish. Maybe those earlier stories were connected to this one. If word got around within the administration that Trump might be drifting towards pulling out of NATO, hawks may have begun scrambling to ramp up suspicions about the president’s relationship with Putin. Withdrawal from NATO would be a wrenching political crisis under the best circumstances. Withdrawal at a moment when the public’s being given reason to suspect that the president might be a — deep breath — Russian asset would be crazy reckless.
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