Trump’s NATO hostility and Russia relations trace back to 1987

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“Donald Trump, who is not the president, is using a minority of Republicans to hand a victory to Russia, and to weaken American power and credibility,” Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has recently written. “Why?”

Why, indeed?

At this seemingly late stage in the game, with Trump having secured his third Republican presidential nomination, it is tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and move on. He has long held idiosyncratic views regarding the defensive alliances of the United States, as well as the fairness and legitimacy of American institutions, notably in his preoccupation with a “rigged election and “American carnage.” That much is obvious. Beyond that, we have no satisfactory answers.

But what if we were to pause and ask the question anew with greater seriousness and intent? When precisely did Donald Trump first express the views whose most recent manifestation was his invitation to the Russian Federation to “do whatever the hell they want” to our allegedly non-dues paying allies?

Most who pay attention to such things know the answer: Trump first and most boldly proclaimed such views in September 1987, when he took out full-page ads in major newspapers to assail U.S. allies for not covering their fair share of our common defense. 

“’Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests?” the ad asked provocatively. 

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Yet before September 1987, Trump’s only reported comments about U.S. foreign policy described his desire to negotiate a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. The ad had nothing to do with disarmament. The theme had changed entirely. What happened?

Surprisingly few people are aware that Trump took his first of four trips to Russia less than two months before placing this infamous full-page ad. Traveling to Moscow at the invitation of Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin, in a private jet accompanied by “two Russian colonels” (his words), Trump claimed he would meet with the general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. That hoped-for meeting did not take place, but others did. 

In the barrage of talk shows and speaking appearances that followed for the next two years, Trump took advantage of every opportunity to return to the same theme. In a typical statement, Trump proclaimed to the 1988 Lehigh University graduating class: “Forget about our enemies — Russia, we don’t deal with them that much … Our friends are making billions of dollars and stripping us of our dignity.”

The message aligned perfectly with the KGB’s talking points at the time. My father, Paul Auerswald, led the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Public Communication during the 1980s. His office published a pair of reports on “active measures,” as Soviet influence operations were known, as did congressional investigators and the CIA in that era. In the United States and Western Europe, such activities had a priority objective: to weaken public support for our defensive alliances, particularly NATO. A second, co-equal objective was to denigrate American institutions.

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By 1990, the world was changing. Like KGB insiders — a group that included a young KGB lieutenant colonel by the name of Vladimir Putin — but unlike almost anyone else in the West, Trump had soured on Gorbachev. 

In an interview with Playboy, he foresaw the Soviet Union’s impending collapse: “What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.” 

Yet, where Gorbachev came up lacking in Trump’s dominance hierarchy, other unnamed Soviets earned his admiration. When asked by Playboy about “top-level Soviet officials” with whom he’d met to “negotiate potential business deals … besides the real-estate deal,” he responded: “Generally, these guys are much tougher and smarter than our representatives.” 

“We have people in this country just as smart, but unfortunately, they’re not elected officials,” he added.

Trump returned to Russia in 1996, 2007 and famously for the Miss Universe pageant he hosted in 2013. His children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, took the first of their trips to Russia in 2006. In 2007, Trump sent a letter to Putin in which he effusively congratulated the Russian leader on being named Time Man of the Year. “As you probably have heard, I am a big fan of yours!” he exclaimed

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Each of these trips was tied to the ostensible aim of scouting locations for a hotel that — despite 30 years of effort by the deal master and epistolary displays of submission — never materialized.

The story that follows is more familiar. While Trump manifestly failed to invest in Russia, Russia did not fail to invest in Trump. By 2014, Eric Trump stated to author James Dodson, “We don’t rely on American banks … We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” claiming further that “We go there all the time.” Three years later, after his father’s election to the presidency, Eric Trump vehemently disavowed this quote.

Donald Trump may be dangerous, but he is not erratic. When it comes to his efforts to undermine the NATO alliance, Trump’s message has been consistent for more than 36 years, ever since his first (but not his last) visit to Moscow.

Philip E. Auerswald is a professor of public policy at the Schar School for Policy and Government, George Mason University.

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