A version of this article was first published in the On the Trail 2024 newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday and Friday mornings here. To submit a question to next week’s Friday Mailbag, email onthetrail@deseretnews.com.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to On the Trail 2024, Deseret’s campaign newsletter.

3 things to know this week

  1. The reports of Super Bowl collusion were greatly exaggerated, though the Chiefs did win and Taylor Swift did appear on the field post game. The bigger “scandal”? Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s ad — which he quickly denounced, apologizing for causing “pain” to family members by mimicking a famous JFK ad from 1960. It raises questions about RFK Jr.’s relationships with his family and his super PAC. More here.
  2. The Senate’s immigration deal is dead, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s pushes to bar Joe Biden from a legislative victory. “In one fell swoop, Republicans have risked, in a very serious way, their mantle as the party most willing to defend America’s allies,” writes Cliff Smith. “In fact, it may already be gone.” Read more here.
  3. The nascent Forward Party won’t run a presidential candidate in 2024. They plan on influencing presidential elections in other ways — for example, by running down-ballot candidates for offices who “hold the line” in maintaining election integrity, like county commissioners. Read more.

The Big Idea

Trump on NATO: Traitorous or ‘tough love’?

Trump’s comments at a South Carolina rally Saturday dominated headlines for the better part of the weekend. If you missed it, here are his comments in full (plus a video):

“They asked me that question. One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, would you protect us?’ I said, ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ Let’s say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.”

The context: Trump is recounting a conversation he had with the president of a NATO country years ago, in which he says he would “encourage” Russia to attack the NATO ally should that country fail to “pay your bills.” NATO members contribute to a common administrative fund; separately, in 2014, each country agreed to move toward spending 2% of its GDP on its own defense by 2024.

According to NATO’s common defense clause, known as Article 5, an attack on one NATO country “shall be considered an attack against them all,” as all countries have a responsibility of defending the attacked country. The only time this clause has been triggered was after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

Trump’s comments were quickly denounced as a show of disloyalty to NATO and Article 5. The current NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said Trump’s assertion “undermines all of our security.” A White House spokesperson called the comments “appalling and unhinged.”

Even several of Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate showed tepid disagreement with Trump’s proclamation, according to Politico. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said it was a “stupid thing to say.” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said “shame on (Trump’s) briefers” for not helping the former president understand the U.S.’ contractual obligations to NATO. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said “none of us wants to see a war in Europe” and vowed support for NATO allies.

Not everyone agreed with this take. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s former national security adviser, stood by Trump’s comments, saying it was a show of “tough love.”

O’Brien visited the Utah state Capitol on Monday, and Deseret News reporter Brigham Tomco asked him whether Trump was calling for a violation of Article 5. “No,” O’Brien said. “President Trump has been the most successful American president as far as NATO goes in my lifetime.”

O’Brien — who has been rumored as a potential pick for secretary of state, should Trump win this November — said Trump made “similar comments” before the 2019 NATO summit in London. “At that summit we got the Europeans to pay $400 billion more in defense spending over 10 years,” O’Brien said. “That was good not just for us, for the American taxpayers, but that was good for the people of Europe to strengthen their defenses.”

Trump has told a similar story before. At a NATO summit in Brussels, he claimed, a fellow leader asked him, “‘Does that mean that you won’t protect us in case — if we don’t pay, you won’t protect us from Russia’ — was the Soviet Union, but now Russia. I said, ‘That’s exactly what it means.’” (Trump recounted the story at a Heritage Foundation event in 2022.)

While it is true Allied defense spending increased after the 2019 summit in London — a 4.9% increase, a projected accumulated increase of $400 billion by the end of this year — not everyone agrees with O’Brien’s assertion that it was a result of Trump’s hard-balling. In Brussels, Trump’s threats and brashness alienated some NATO allies; in London, Trump left the conference early after a video of world leaders criticizing him behind his back went viral.

While O’Brien claimed Trump’s recent comments were “similar” to his earlier comments, there is one key difference, according to our understanding of those closed-door meetings: on Saturday, Trump didn’t just say he would refrain from defending NATO allies, but that he would “encourage” Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to them.

At the Utah statehouse Monday, O’Brien argued that Trump’s “tough love” tactics are causing European countries to contribute more to their own defense budgets:

“For too long Europe’s gotten used to free riding on American and not burden sharing with us and letting us take care of their defense. And so, President Trump, his message may be a little unorthodox, but he’s accomplished something that no other president has ever accomplished. He’s actually gotten the Europeans to pay more for their own defense. And that’s primarily good for the Europeans. So they ought to be thanking President Trump for moving their governments. And I call it tough love.”

O’Brien is correct in asserting that the U.S. outpaces most NATO countries in its defense spending. According to the latest NATO report on defense expenditures, dated July 2023, only Poland spends a greater share of its GDP on defense. Only 11 of the 31 NATO countries spend the expected 2% of their GDP annually on defense.

But O’Brien’s claim that Trump accomplished “something that no other president has” — getting Europeans “to pay more for their defense” — isn’t entirely true. Obama was president in 2014 when NATO agreed to move toward the 2% threshold; by the time Obama left office in 2017, 24 of the other 30 NATO countries had seen an uptick in their defense spending.

Both Obama and former president George W. Bush pushed NATO members to spend more on defense, though it was not the centerpiece of their approach to NATO.

The difference? They did not “encourage” Russia — or any other enemy — to do whatever they want should the allies fall short.

What I’m reading

Biden is old, and Democrats have no bench — or do they? Here’s a look at what a post-Biden Democratic Party would look like, and how Biden could start that transition as early as this summer. Democrats Might Need a Plan B. Here’s What It Looks Like. (Charlie Mahtesian and Stevan Shepard, Politico)

The Four Horsemen leading Trump’s legal defense: How the former president built “the equivalent of a boutique law firm” with a single mission: keep Trump out of jail. Unprecedented assignment: Defending Donald Trump in criminal court (Perry Stein, Shayna Jacobs, Josh Dawsey and Amy Gardner, The Washington Post)

Is America a Christian nation? Statistically, yes — most Americans identify as Christian. But does that mean that Christian norms should be codified, Christians should be legally favored and other groups should be socially excluded? No. A smart, conservative take on the issue: Christian Nationalism Can’t Make Our Nation Christian (Rachel Ferguson and Dylan Pahman, The Dispatch)

One last thing — a reminder to follow our new On the Trail 2024 Instagram account.

Have a question for the next Friday mailbag? Drop me a line at onthetrail@deseretnews.com.

See you on the trail.

Editor’s Note: The Deseret News is committed to covering issues of substance in the 2024 presidential race from its unique perspective and editorial values. Our team of political reporters will bring you in-depth coverage of the most relevant news and information to help you make an informed decision. Find our complete coverage of the election here.