Following President Donald Trump’s tumultuous visit to Europe for a NATO summit and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the co-chairs of the Senate NATO Observer Group on Thursday said the legislative branch will seek to play a greater role in deciding U.S. policy towards the European defense organization.
“The voice of the American people doesn’t just come through one branch. It comes through two branches, and the U.S. Congress is a very important part of that,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC.), co-chair of the recently revamped observer group said at an event held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While Trump signed a resolution following the summit in Brussels last week reaffirming America’s commitment to article five — NATO’s collective defense mechanism — the president seemed to cast doubt on his support for the article in a subsequent interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson in Helsinki.
“So, let’s say Montenegro — which joined last year — is attacked, why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked Trump.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Trump responded. “I’ve asked the same question …They have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Trump has long raised doubts about the future of America’s commitment to NATO. Legislators, however, appear to be resolute in their support for the organization.
Ahead of the president’s trip to Europe, the Senate passed a motion 97-2 reaffirming America’s “ironclad” commitment to NATO.
On Tuesday, Tillis and Co-Chair Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH.) announced that the Senate NATO Observer Group will expand to include nine new members — five Republicans and four Democrats.
The observer group was originally established in 1997 amidst a number of NATO expansions but was disbanded in 2007. Tillis and Shaheen reestablished the group in February.
“As we look at some of the equivocations about the importance of NATO by the president, as we look at the current challenges we face from Russia, from cyber … from terrorism, [Tillis] and I thought that this would be a good time to think about reestablishing [the group],” Shaheen said Thursday.
While both co-chairs said they believe it’s unlikely Trump will attempt to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, Shaheen argued the president’s equivocations are still doing damage.
“I think there are only so many times where that can happen, and it begins to chip away at the belief that the United States is a reliable ally,” Shaheen said of Trump’s comments on article five. “What the president says does have resonance … it’s taking a toll.”
Tillis’ criticism of Trump’s rhetoric on NATO was more tame. The Republican Senator suggested Trump’s posturing is a strategy to pressure member countries to contribute more to the group’s defense fund — a demand Trump has long made.
“I do believe that the president uses various devices to capture people’s attention,” Tillis said. “Incidentally, using those kinds of devices has gotten NATO members on the right track to contributing and getting their investment in NATO up.”
Tillis, however, threatened that any serious move to withdraw the U.S. from the treaty organization would be met by a “historic” mobilization from Congress to stop it.
“If President Trump or any president … were to actually, seriously withdraw from NATO, I think it would create a unifying event unlike anything you’ve seen in U.S. history,” Tillis said. “The same 97-2 vote would be the same kind for vote we’d have for congressional action.”
The senators said NATO is important not only to U.S. defense interests but economic interests as well. As more countries from Eastern Europe seek to join the organization, the co-chairs framed the issue around extending Western influence to regions that have been historically under a Russian economic sphere.
“We had clear evidence that Russia had tried to engineer a coup in Montenegro because they don’t want … countries in the Balkans that have historically been areas of Russian influence to join the West,” Shaheen said. “We want those countries to be a part of the Western sphere of influence.”
War torn Ukraine is another nation caught between alignment with the West and Moscow. The country is strategically important to Russian economic interests, and evidence shows Putin has intervened militarily in an effort to prevent pro-Western forces from coming to power, despite denials from the Kremlin.
“On Ukraine, I don’t have any interest in Russia’s opinion about the succession of a potential NATO ally,” Tillis said.