Trump boasts he told Nato members he wouldn’t protect them from Russia

Former President Donald Trump says he made thinly-veiled threats to Nato leaders while he was president, reportedly saying the US would not defend them against Russia if they did not pay up.

According to the Washington Post, Mr Trump recalled the conversation during a Thursday appearance at a Heritage Foundation event in Florida.

"[Another world leader] said, '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," Mr Trump said. "I said, 'That's exactly what it means."

He claimed he was using the threat as a negotiating tactic.

"Now if I said, 'No, I don't mean that,' then why would they pay? So somebody had to say it," he said.

Mr Trump treating Nato members like clients of a private security company rather than allied nations, when viewed alongside other comments he made about the organisation during his presidency, is not shocking.

The former president noted this during his speech, claiming he was "amazed" the story was never leaked.

Others who were present during that 2018 summit said they remember the threat differently. They told the Washington Post that Mr Trump said he would "do his own thing" if member nations did not reach their defense spending targets by the end of 2018.

John Bolton, who served as Mr Trump's national security adviser at the time, recalled in his book and to the paper that he was terrified the then-president would pull out of Nato completely.

“I didn’t know what the president would do,” Mr Bolton said. “He called me up to his seat seconds before he gave the speech. And I said, look, go right up to the line, but don’t go over it. I sat back down. I had no idea what he’d do.”

Mr Trump frequently complained that Nato owed the US back payments and that member countries were not upholding the financial end of their alliance responsibilities. Those claims are mostly inaccurate.

Nato is not a club in which members pay monthly dues or lose their benefits.

Former Obama administration National Security Council staff member Aaron O'Connell told NPR that Nato does not have a ledger that tracks member contributions.

When Mr Trump complains that Nato member countries aren't hitting their defence spending goals, he is referring to a commitment made by members in 2014. Under that commitment, member countries agreed to move toward spending 2 per cent of their GDP on defence by 2024. Currently, only nine of the 29 members commit 2 per cent of their GDP to the alliance.

The former president also took credit when member countries began paying more for their defence. While his threats may have had some influence on leaders' decisions, most of the increases to defence spending were already underway during Barack Obama’s presidency.