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With NATO withdrawal, Trump weighed 'gift of the century for Putin'

It's increasingly difficult to even imagine a benign explanation for Donald Trump's posture toward Moscow.
Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit of heads of state and government in...

As retired Gen. John Kelly wrapped up his difficult tenure as White House chief of staff, he sought some credit for preventing Donald Trump from taking spectacularly damaging steps. Kelly told the L.A. Times he wanted his time in the West Wing to be judged, not by what he helped the president do, but by what he stopped the president from doing.

Such as? The retired general mentioned a handful of possible nightmare scenarios, including the possibility of American withdrawal from NATO.

Was that actually a step Trump was prepared to take? According to new reporting from the New York Times, the answer is an alarming yes.

There are few things that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia desires more than the weakening of NATO, the military alliance among the United States, Europe and Canada that has deterred Soviet and Russian aggression for 70 years.Last year, President Trump suggested a move tantamount to destroying NATO: the withdrawal of the United States.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.... In the days around a tumultuous NATO summit meeting last summer, they said, Mr. Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.

Whether the Republican president understands this or not, NATO is almost certainly the most successful and important international alliance in modern world history.

It's also something Russian President Vladimir Putin hates and would love to see destroyed from within.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, told the Times an American abandonment of the alliance would be "a geopolitical mistake of epic proportion." The retired admiral added, "Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO -- let alone actually doing so -- would be the gift of the century for Putin."

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the NATO alliance remains intact. But reading the report got me thinking about the list of recent revelations on this subject:

* Jan. 3: Trump publicly endorsed the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, arguing that the Soviets "were right to be there." It was one of several recent examples of the Republican president endorsing Russian propaganda for no apparent reason.

* Jan. 10: The Trump administration tried to defend the idea of relaxing Russia sanctions. It didn't go well.

* Jan. 11: The New York Times  reported that after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, the FBI began an investigation into whether Trump "had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests." The article added, "Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president's own actions constituted a possible threat to national security."

* Jan. 12: The Washington Post  reported that Trump has "gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations" with Putin, going so far as to take his own interpreter's notes after one private discussion.

* Jan. 14: The New York Times  reports that Trump raised the idea of withdrawing from NATO "several" times in 2018.

This series of revelations raises two related truths: (1) it's increasingly difficult to even imagine a benign explanation for the current American president's posture toward Moscow; and (2) there are some folks in the Trump administration who want the public to know the alarming details about Trump's posture toward Moscow.