Is Trump asking Putin for favors again?

On Thursday, President Biden went all in supporting Ukraine, asking Congress for $33 billion in military and economic aid to the embattled country, ten times more than previously sent.

If you’ve wondered what would have happened to Ukraine had Donald Trump won reelection, wonder no more. Here’s a tipoff that slipped under most people’s radar — but you can bet Vladimir Putin picked it up.

On April 22, in a talk to the conservative Heritage Foundation at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., Mr. Trump bragged that during a NATO conference while he was in office, he threatened that he would not honor the NATO treaty’s Article V, the pledge that all signatories would defend any member attacked by Russia.

Think about the timing of dropping that memory bomb.

Was it an accident that Trump made the comments in a speech while Putin carries out his barbarous invasion of Ukraine? At such a moment, would any politician more concerned about Russia’s purposeful murder of civilians than his own future have boasted of a threat not to defend NATO countries?

I think Trump was sending a message to Putin — the 2022 version of his 2016 campaign invitation to hack Hillary Clinton’s email accounts: “Russia, if you are listening …”

Back then, the implied quid pro quo was that if Trump got the campaign help, he’d return the favor by cozying up to Putin’s strategic objectives, perhaps even reducing sanctions.

Now, just as in 2016, Trump is running again for president, and he wants help. Trump likely wouldn’t mind having some foreign assistance now against his rising GOP rivals, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But he certainly knows he could use Putin’s help going forward, whether through hacking of Hunter Biden’s email accounts or a disinformation campaign that duplicates the one in 2016 that got 12 Russian military officers indicted.

Sure, Trump’s bragging on April 22 was about his past blustering — how during his presidency, he pressured NATO members to up their financial and military contributions. But he’s always been good at coding his tantalizing offers to unsavory types, as well as his threats to anyone who opposes him, including by reference to the past.  

Recall during the 2016 election campaign his attack on John McCain. “He’s no war hero.” Trump said, “I like people who weren’t captured,” referring to McCain’s imprisonment by the North Vietnamese after his plane was downed in 1967. During the 2016 campaign, McCain had slammed Trump for “firing up the crazies,” and Trump was warning other Republicans what was in store for them if they opposed him.

Similarly, there was method to the madness when Trump refused to condemn violence by the militant Proud Boys during the Sept. 30, 2020, presidential debate. When moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would do so, Trump famously responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,”

That alliterative sound bite sounded then like it reflected preparation and strategic intent, as if Trump were offering an embrace of extremists and preparing for them to back him up if he needed them after the election.

The Proud Boys certainly took Trump’s statement as a rallying cry. They were in the violent vanguard of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Justice Department has indicted their leader for conspiracy to obstruct a Congressional proceeding.

Now, with Trump’s April 22 braggadocio about having threatened not to defend NATO nations if attacked by Russia, he is playing with fire on a global scale.

Just as he apparently sought to reorder the lawful transfer of power in America on Jan. 6, so he seems to signal now his willingness to restructure the world order. Trump’s comment came on the same day that a Russian commander described how Putin’s focus on taking over the Donbas and southeastern Ukraine is a gateway to neighboring Moldova, which is not a NATO member.

If Trump would not defend NATO members, is there any doubt about what he would do for Moldova?

Or what he’d have done for Ukraine as Putin’s army rolled in?

Remember: This is the same guy who withheld $400 million in military aid to Ukraine — until it became public he’d done so in an attempt to extract a favor from President Volodymyr Zelensky, an investigation of Hunter Biden. That was 2019, and Trump got impeached — the first time — for that attempted quid pro quo.

March polls showed that most Americans want to see President Biden get tougher on Russia. He’s responded with Thursday’s huge commitment in support of Ukraine’s resistance to aggression.

That is good for world order. It’s also good politics against the likes of 2024 rivals like Donald Trump, who would fold like a house of cards in the face of Putin’s ambitious aggression.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

Tags Capitol insurrection Donald Trump Hunter Biden Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden John McCain military aid to Ukraine Moldova NATO Proud Boys quid pro quo Russian aggression Russian hacking Russian interference in the 2016 election Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian meddling Russian sanctions Trump campaign Trump Putin Trump speech Trump Threats Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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