Two North Carolina Republicans who play significant roles in the national security arena are working to strike a balance in supporting a GOP presidential nominee who has threatened to abandon NATO allies, asked Russia to find his political opponent’s emails and used his Twitter account to bash a seasoned four-star general.
Republicans Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem and Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte publicly endorsed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump after he visited Capitol Hill in early July to drum up support for his campaign, but neither one of them wants to see the strategic relationship between the United States and its allies trivialized just as they are preparing to work together to track Islamic State activities in Iraq and Syria.
Burr is the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and Pittenger is the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and the vice chairman of the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing.
Trump said in an interview with The New York Times that he would prefer for the United States to continue having a positive relationship with all 28 NATO members but that he was also prepared to cut ties with nations that failed to contribute to the alliance the 2 percent of gross domestic product that members are expected to spend on defense. Trump said he was prepared to tell those countries: “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” The interview was made public July 21.
North Carolina’s top two national security figures have defended the U.S. relationship with NATO and, also, Trump.
“NATO remains critical to the security and stability of Europe, and member nations continue to play important roles in the fight against (the Islamic State) and global terrorism,” Burr said in an email statement. “The navies and air forces of NATO also play crucial roles in guaranteeing freedom of navigation in Europe and beyond.”
“The alliance is important,” Pittenger told The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy publication. “It supports our economic interest, certainly, and Russia right now is seeking to divide Europe and divide NATO, and that is the strategy of Mr. Putin. So he has sought division in any way possible that he could, and our particularly the Baltic state allies are greatly threatened.”
Pittenger explained that Trump was signaling allies that they should not take their commitment to the alliance lightly. The candidate was simply trying to use his skills as a businessman to negotiate a better financial situation for the United States, Pittenger said.
Trump’s NATO rhetoric endangers some of the Baltic states, which “spend way less than the 2 percent of GDP goal” and “presumably wouldn’t qualify for U.S. support under the Trump doctrine,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a research center. Instead of threatening not to defend alliance members, the presidential nominee should give member nations three years to approach the 2 percent target, O’Hanlon said.
“If that were Trump’s idea, I’d still oppose it but I could respect it – and wouldn’t consider it the equivalent of strategically suicidal behavior,” O’Hanlon said.
Foreign policy controversies have become common for the Trump campaign in recent weeks. Trump called on Russian hackers to find Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s missing emails during a news briefing Wednesday in Florida. Clinton deleted about 30,000 personal emails from her server when she was secretary of state. Those emails have been subject to an FBI investigation.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
His comments sparked outrage and cybersecurity concerns among Democrats. But that, said Rep. David Nunes, R-Calif., is because they failed to realize that Trump was merely poking fun at how Clinton had set up “her own homebrew email server that trafficked in classified information” and sent unsecure emails from the soil of foreign adversaries.
“Seeing as the FBI concluded that this server may have been hacked, Clinton supporters are really the last people who should be lecturing us about the importance of cybersecurity,” said Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Nevertheless, now that he is officially a candidate for president, Trump should consider that his public comments will receive much more scrutiny than before – especially when it comes to U.S. foreign relations.”
Trump was only “emphasizing the reality that Russia is aggressive with cyberwar and clearly has the capacity to exploit” U.S. data, Pittenger said.
Mrs. Clinton deceived the American people and failed the “Russian Reset,” which led to highly provocative Russian policies and military expansion.
Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C.
Foreign “hackers remain a serious challenge to the security of the U.S. As chairman of the Intelligence Committee,” said Burr spokeswoman Rebecca Watkins, “Sen. Burr has an obligation to wait for the FBI and the broader intelligence community to complete their investigation on the source of this cyberattack. Public discussion about attribution and possible responses are premature, at best.”
In his capacity as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Burr frequently meets with our country’s allied partners, including representatives of NATO.
Sen. Richard Burr spokeswoman Rebecca Watkins
Not long after his Russia hacking comments, Trump was on Twitter to talk smack about retired Marine Gen. John Allen after the former special envoy to Iraq and Syria publicly criticized him during the Democratic National Convention.
Maggie Ybarra: 202-383-6048, @MolotovFlicker