Trump seeks to rewrite his role in bolstering Ukraine, NATO

The former president says "there would be no NATO" if not for his efforts.

February 28, 2022, 3:24 PM

Former President Donald Trump on Monday sought to recast his administration's role in bolstering Europe's security, claiming credit for strengthening NATO and arming Ukraine's military with advanced weaponry.

But critics were quick to point out that Trump, whose "America First" foreign policy slogan often reflected efforts to pull back from allies, frequently undermined NATO and once threatened to withhold military aide from Ukraine -- a move that was deemed illegal by a government watchdog and became central to Trump's first impeachment trial in Congress.

"It was Trump that undermined U.S. national security and froze military assistance to Ukraine," retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a former National Security Council official during the Trump administration who testified at the impeachment inquiry, told ABC News on Monday. "It was Trump's attacks on NATO and support from the far-right that encouraged Putin to believe that NATO was fragile. Trump has blood on his hands."

Nonetheless, as Russian troops continued to clash with Ukrainian forces Monday, Trump boasted of fortifying Ukraine's defense capabilities and declared that "there would be no NATO" if not for his efforts.

"I hope everyone is able to remember that it was me, as President of the United States, that got delinquent NATO members to start paying their dues, which amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars," Trump said in a statement.

"Also, it was me that got Ukraine the very effective anti-tank busters (Javelins) when the previous Administration was sending blankets," he said. "Let History so note!"

Despite his claims of saving NATO, an alliance of 29 countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the Trump administration oversaw a period of immense strain with allies in Europe. As president, Trump wavered on his commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which stipulates that an attack on one member state amounts to attack on them all.

In this May 25, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump spearks during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit in Brussels.
Christophe Licoppe/Photonews via Getty Images, FILE

Mick Mulroy, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Trump administration and now an ABC News contributor, characterized Article 5 as "what makes NATO the most effective military alliance in history."

Ties with Europe became so strained during Trump's presidency that Trump reportedly discussed removing the U.S. from NATO entirely. Two of Trump's former national security advisers, John Bolton and Gen. John Kelly, have said publicly that Trump expressed an interest in exiting the alliance.

"To the extent President Trump's rhetoric around NATO helped increase defense spending, it was likely more out of a fear that the U.S. commitment to European security was faltering rather than a positive reinforcement of mutual commitments to the Alliance and Euro-Atlantic security," said Steven Keil, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Critics also took note of Trump's invocation of the Javelin, a shoulder-fired precision missile system designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles, in his infamous July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Trump, in 2018, had approved the $47 million sale of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers to Ukraine -- the first lethal military assistance provided to Ukraine by the U.S. in its fight against Russian-supported separatists since fighting began in 2014. Zelenskyy told Trump in the 2019 phone call that his government was "almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes," according to a readout of the call.

Trump responded: "I would like you to do us a favor though," and then pressured Zelenskyy to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to publicly announce an investigation into then-candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who had previously served on the board of a Ukrainian oil firm. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump over the incident, but he was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office later found that the Trump administration broke the law in withholding nearly $400 million in congressional appropriations earmarked for Ukraine. The funds were eventually released, and the Trump administration denied any wrongdoing.

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