Donald Trump wanted to pull the United States out of NATO during his first term, but was repeatedly talked out of it by senior administration officials. For a possible second term in the White House, the 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner is already discussing how he could actually get it done, if his demands aren’t met by NATO. He and his policy-wonk allies are also gaming out how he could dramatically wind down American involvement to merely a “standby” position in NATO, in Trump’s own words.
When the former president has privately discussed the United States’ role in the transatlantic military alliance this year, Trump has made clear that he doesn’t want the upper ranks of a second administration to be staffed by “NATO lovers,” according to two sources who’ve heard him make such comments. The ex-president has made these kinds of jabs at the longstanding alliance during conversations related to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine.
Trump, the sources say, has continued to express an openness to pulling the U.S. out of NATO altogether. However, Trump has suggested that this could be averted if the alliance — which Trump once famously called “obsolete” — gives in to his newest demands. This would include his desires for non-American members to further and steeply increase their defense spending, and for a reevaluation of the bedrock principle that an attack on one member is tantamount to an attack on all.
When he was in office, Trump would repeatedly scoff at this collective-defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty, known as Article 5. One former senior administration official recalls to Rolling Stone a moment in the Oval Office in mid-2018 when the then-president started reading from a written list of smaller NATO countries, some of which he argued most Americans had never even heard of before.
Trump then vented that “starting World War III” over some of these countries’ sovereignty made absolutely no sense, and that he shouldn’t be forced to automatically commit American troops to any such crisis.
Any threats or action on Trump’s part in recasting the U.S.’s role in NATO would all, of course, be contingent on Trump winning reelection next year. When he was leader of the free world for four years, he dangled anti-NATO sentiments on multiple occasions, only to yield to intra-administration pushback.
“It would be a tremendously stupid endeavor, especially at a time when war in Europe rages, and much of Europe is looking to the United States to deter further conflict,” Dr. Aaron Stein, a Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says, reacting to Trump’s NATO-skeptic policy goals. “Trading away allies based on ignorance, and Trump is ignorant about this issue, is just silly for broader U.S. national security.”
But this time around, an array of nationalist allies and pro-Trump policy wonks have been eager to offer the ex-president frameworks for how to MAGA-fy the U.S. approach to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. One possibility that has piqued Trump’s interest in recent months is what the former president has privately branded, “NATO on standby,” according to sources familiar with his private musings. One source close to Trump describes the idea as having the potential to “blast a hole straight through NATO.”
Trump’s idea reflects some of the arguments laid out in a policy brief, published in February by researcher and conservative writer Dr. Sumantra Maitra, titled: “Pivoting the US Away from Europe to a Dormant NATO.” The paper was posted by the Center for Renewing America, a think tank stacked with Trump administration veterans and MAGA Republicans that is laying groundwork to be a premier policy driver if Trump retakes the presidency. “The NATO bureaucracy is a barrier in the path of reduced American commitment,” the brief reads. “It is self-sustaining and prone to push missions that are beyond NATO’s core role and, at times, opposed to the domestic interests of the United States. Radically reducing the NATO bureaucracy should be a chief aim.”
Sources familiar with the matter say that this paper indeed circulated within Trump’s immediate circle earlier this year. “There were some ideas in it that the [former] president liked,” says a former Trump administration official who remains in close contact with the 2024 campaign.
During his time in office, Trump repeatedly misunderstood the meaning and purpose of NATO’s collective spending agreements, which required each member to spend at least two percent of their gross domestic product on defense. By contrast, the former president mistakenly spoke of the alliance as a kind of protection racket, in which members’ spending obligations were paid to the U.S. as dues rather than a general requirement for countries to spend set amounts on defense as they saw fit.
In a memoir of his stint as Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton wrote that he “could never tell” if Trump genuinely understood NATO’s defense spending requirements. Bolton recounted a number of attempts in which Trump, frustrated by an impression that NATO members were stiffing the U.S. on an imagined tab, alternately threatened to leave or reduce America’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance, only to have the threats walked back by staff. (These days, the ex-president has reserved especially harsh words for “NATO lovers” in general and Bolton in particular.)
“In a second Trump term, we’d almost certainly withdraw from NATO,” Bolton predicted to The Hill in August.
The issue has taken on new urgency as Trump has ratched up his antagonism both towards European allies and the Ukrainian government in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the country in February 2022.
“The good old USA ‘suckers’ are paying a VAST majority of the NATO bill, & outside money, going to Ukraine. VERY UNFAIR!” Trump bellowed on his Truth Social platform in January.
During an August town hall interview with Fox News, Trump bragged that he had told NATO members “I will not protect you from Russia,” if they were “delinquent” in defense spending.
The former president’s continued irritation at NATO allies and his growing agitation against U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which has sought to join the alliance, has ratched up fears that Trump would make good on his threats to leave the alliance if he wins the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
That prospect prompted the Senate to pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act over the summer. The legislation, introduced by Senators Time Kaine and Marco Rubio, would prohibit any future president from withdrawing from NATO without the approval of two thirds of the Senate.
The measure would tie up any attempt at a formal withdrawal in Congress but would not prevent a future Trump administration from undermining confidence in the U.S. security guarantees implicit in the alliance. Under NATO’s Article 5 collective defense agreement, states are obliged to assist member states under attack, but the treaty leaves it to member states to define the scope and type of assistance they would offer once invoked.
While Trump may find it more difficult to formally leave NATO if the legislation becomes law, he would still be able to undermine the credibility of U.S. security guarantees to other member states.
“He still wants out,” says one Trump adviser, who notes it is unclear if he “actually would follow through” on doing so, given his track record as president. “But he wants a policy team around him nowadays that is much, much tougher on NATO than anything he’s done in the past,” this adviser adds. “That’s one difference.”