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Republicans play cleanup on aisle Trump after former president's NATO comments

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the former president, gestures to the crowd after speaking at a rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., on Feb. 10.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the former president, gestures to the crowd after speaking at a rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., on Feb. 10.

When former President Donald Trump recalled a story at a campaign rally in South Carolina over the weekend about telling a European ally that the U.S. would not defend it against Russia unless it spent more on defense, the reaction was swift and unsurprising.

One of the things I'm not going to do any longer is respond to every comment Donald Trump makes and say, 'Do you still support him?' I do, and I support him because Joe Biden's a disaster.

The White House, in an uncharacteristic comment, called Trump's story, where he allegedly told a fellow world leader he would encourage Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to countries that did not meet NATO spending targets, "appalling and unhinged."

NATO's leadership said the suggestion that any member country would violate Article 5's mandate that an attack on one is an attack on all "undermines all of our security," while Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., had to answer questions about the remarks in interviews on television and in the hallways of the Capitol.

Trump supporter Christi McCuiston of Elon, NC, center, listens with other attendees as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 10.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Trump supporter Christi McCuiston (center) of Elon, N.C., listens with other attendees as Trump speaks at a rally at Coastal Carolina University on Feb. 10.

The inevitable cycle of Trump's controversial statements and stances are nothing new since his first run for president in 2016, and neither are the inevitable responses and the weight those comments are given among various groups.

His opponents say to take him literally and seriously; Republican voters say to take him seriously but not literally; and many of his allies in elected office often try to do neither.

Take the NATO remarks, made at a rally in Conway, S.C., on Saturday. The next day, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a co-sponsor of legislation that would prevent a president from leaving NATO without Senate approval, dismissed concerns about Trump's assertions.

"One of the things I'm not going to do any longer is respond to every comment Donald Trump makes and say, 'Do you still support him?'" he said on CNN. "I do, and I support him because Joe Biden's a disaster."

Rubio, who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, chalked the anecdote up to Trump's speaking style.

"Donald Trump is not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations," he said. "He doesn't talk like a traditional politician, and we've already been through this. You would think people would've figured it out by now."

The "seriously but not literally" aspect was on display at the packed rally on the campus of Coastal Carolina University, where his NATO comments were essentially treated as a throwaway line and received little traction among the crowd.

Part of that is volume: Trump spent nearly two hours riffing about everything from his immigration proposals to the criminal charges against him, attacking President Biden and chief Republican rival Nikki Haley. The rally featured a several-minute interlude where the crowd chanted "F*** Joe Biden" as a few protesters were escorted out of the arena.

Part of that is Trump himself, who flits between issue-based commentary and seemingly random events, like a post on his social media site on Sunday that said pop superstar Taylor Swift should support him instead of Biden because he made her a lot of money.

His opponents, few in the Republican Party but plenty on the left, zeroed in on the remarks, which would appear to support abandoning the NATO alliance and further strengthening Russia, as the latest example of why they think he should not be the GOP nominee or the country's next president.

Biden's campaign issued a statement reiterating support for NATO and blasting Trump for "promising to rule as a dictator like the ones he praises on day one if he returns to the oval office."

Less than two weeks before the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Haley used the opportunity to excoriate Trump for his foreign policy stances and the mocking comments he made about her husband, currently deployed in Africa with the South Carolina National Guard.

But herein lies the reality of Trump's comment: It's possible that if he is elected, he will take steps to shrink the United States' international footprint and leave NATO, but it's possible that the comment was just a throwaway line at one of many rallies he will hold before the election.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.

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