Donald Trump conceded last month that when he criticized the NATO alliance during the campaign, he did so despite “not knowing much about NATO.” It was an unflattering admission that the Republican is comfortable popping off on important subjects he doesn’t understand – because for Trump, knowledge is not a prerequisite to forming an opinion.
And while that was certainly a problem in 2016, it’s a bigger problem in 2017 that Trump still has plenty to say about NATO that doesn’t really make sense. On Twitter, for example, the president boasted the other day that “money is beginning to pour in” from NATO’s member nations.
He made a similar comment over the weekend while speaking with U.S. troops in Italy: “I will tell you, a big difference over the last year, money is actually starting to pour into NATO from countries that would not have been doing what they’re doing now had I not been elected, I can tell you that. Money is starting to pour in.”
For the record, it was under Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, that NATO members adopted a new approach to defense spending.
But even putting that aside, the underlying claim doesn’t make sense. An Associated Press report explained, “[N]o money is pouring in and countries do not pay the U.S. Nor do they pay NATO directly, apart from administrative expenses, which are not the issue. The issue is how much each NATO member country spends on its own defense. Although the president is right that many NATO countries have agreed to spend more on their military budgets, that is not a result of the NATO summit this past week at which Trump pressed them to do so.”
A Washington Post report added today:
The president is still regurgitating inaccurate campaign rhetoric. He appears to now understand that NATO members are supposed to meet a 2 percent guideline, but he still consistently frames this as money that is owed to the United States or American taxpayers. But even if all NATO members suddenly met the guideline, no additional money would end up in the U.S. Treasury. So the president is being deeply misleading.
During the campaign, we originally gave Trump’s NATO comments Three Pinnochios, as more of the burden for defense of Europe falls on American shoulders. But enough time has passed, with so little change in the president’s rhetoric, that we are increasing the rating to Four Pinocchios.
It’s the persistence of Trump’s ignorance on NATO that rankles most.
Last year, when he was wrong about the alliance, Trump was a first-time candidate, in over his head, struggling with issues he was considering for the first time. His confusion was problematic, but predictable. Now, however, he’s the sitting president – who has no excuse.
Those feeling charitable might argue that Trump understands how NATO works, but he’s intentionally deceiving people in order to give the appearance that he’s making progress and governing effectively on foreign policy. I’m skeptical of the defense, but either way, when a president’s allies are reduced to arguing, “Don’t worry, he’s just lying,” there’s obviously a problem.