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White House rebukes Trump for remark on urging Russia to attack allies

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. on Feb. 10.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

The White House pushed back against Donald Trump’s claim that he told NATO leaders while president that he would encourage Russia to invade members of the alliance who didn’t meet their defense commitments.

In a campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was “busted” until he came along and forced members to “pay up.” When a European leader at an unspecified NATO meeting asked if the US would protect them if they were delinquent, Trump said he responded by saying he would tell Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to those who weren’t meeting their commitments.

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Many members are falling short of a 2014 pledge to invest 2 percent of gross domestic product in defense. During his time in office, Trump repeatedly pressed NATO member states to increase their defense budgets and criticized them for free-riding on US military power. He even questioned the value of remaining part of NATO at times.

“Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged – and it endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “Thanks to President Biden’s experienced leadership, NATO is now the largest and most vital it has ever been.”

There is concern among NATO officials, particularly in Europe, that Trump could be heading back to the White House. He is closing in on the Republican nomination following wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and the Nevada caucus.

Trump said the war between Ukraine and Russia must end, reiterating his disapproval for sending more aid overseas as the Senate seeks to move forward with a package to provide emergency funding for Ukraine and Israel.

“We got to get that war settled and I’ll get it settled,” Trump said at the rally.

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He called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “the greatest salesman in history” and sought to suggest that the US could be “out hundreds of billions of dollars” if Ukraine made a deal with Russia — which invaded the country two years ago — and “all of a sudden they don’t want to deal with us anymore.”

Trump’s possible return to the White House is increasingly a factor in Ukraine’s war to reclaim Russian-occupied territory after a counteroffensive faltered, Zelenskiy fell out with his top military commander and US military aid got stuck in Congress. Zelenskiy said this month “I want to believe and hope” that political changes in the US wouldn’t mean an end to aid for Ukraine.

—With assistance from Stephanie Lai and Alicia Diaz.