March 21, 2016 / 5:33 PM / 2 years ago

Trump questions U.S. financial backing for NATO

Senator Jeff Sessions speaks next to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Alabama February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should significantly cut spending on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said on Monday, questioning a policy that has underpinned U.S. foreign relations for nearly 70 years.

Trump, whose worldviews have been rebuked by a section of the Republican establishment, made the comments as he unveiled a partial list of foreign policy advisers, who are relatively little known.

“We are paying disproportionately (for NATO). It’s too much and frankly it’s a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea,” Trump said in an interview on CNN. “We have to reconsider. Keep NATO, but maybe we have to pay a lot less toward NATO itself.”

NATO, now consisting of 28 members, was formed after World War Two as a Western military alliance against the Soviet bloc.

The comments reinforced Trump’s relatively isolationist stance on foreign policy. The New York billionaire businessman has alarmed establishment Republican foreign policy thinkers with comments denigrating Muslims and Mexican immigrants, and with his vows to tear up international trade deals.

Announcing his foreign policy advisers in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, he said the United States should not be “nation-building anymore,” adding that Washington could not afford to keep funding NATO at current levels.

“We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” he said.

Trump has said he is willing to work more closely with authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose military intervention in Ukraine has increased tensions with NATO.

Washington is the biggest contributor to NATO, and U.S. officials have long been critical of its European allies for not spending more.

NATO is planning its biggest buildup in Eastern Europe since the Cold War to deter Russia, helped by an increase in planned U.S. spending.

“The happiest person hearing this would be Vladimir Putin,” said retired Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. “We are all frustrated with low European defense spending, but pulling away from NATO would be an extraordinary geopolitical mistake.”

Trump’s advisory team includes terrorism expert Walid Phares, energy industry executive Carter Page, international energy lawyer George Papadopoulos, former Pentagon Inspector General Joe Schmitz and former Army Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg.

‘OBSCURE’ TEAM

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

He said he would soon name more people helping him shape his foreign policies as part of the team, led by U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama who endorsed Trump last month.

“Taken as a group, it’s a fairly obscure set of individuals,” said Michael O‘Hanlon, a national security and defense policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, adding he did not recognize most of the names on Trump’s list.

Trump, one of three remaining Republican presidential candidates for the Nov. 8 election, has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks to say who advises him on foreign and security matters.

One hundred and twenty Republican national security experts who served in past presidential administrations have signed a letter saying they cannot support Trump and will work to ensure he is not elected.

Phares told Reuters he began advising Trump on Friday. He previously served as a national security adviser to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has roundly criticized Trump. Phares said in an email he had not met Trump in person since last year.

The others on the list could not be immediately reached to confirm their roles with Trump’s campaign.

Schmitz was Pentagon inspector general under President George W. Bush and worked for Blackwater Worldwide, a now-defunct private U.S. security firm whose personnel were involved in a deadly shooting that killed Iraqi civilians in 2007.

Kellogg has considerable military experience, having served as chief operating officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-run provisional government imposed on Iraq after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion under Bush. He has worked at CACI International, a Virginia-based intelligence and information technology consulting firm.

Trump has vigorously criticized the invasion. Asked at a news conference about why he chose Kellogg despite his role in Iraq, Trump said: “I don’t have to agree with them but I have to hear different opinions.”

According to the Post, Papadopoulos previously advised Trump’s former rival Ben Carson, who has now backed Trump. The London Center of International Law Practice’s Center website lists him as the head of its Center for International Energy and Natural Resources Law & Security.

Page serves as a managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a private energy services company, the Post said.

Sessions is not seen as an influential foreign policy or national security player in the U.S. Congress. He does not serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although he is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Last week, Trump said in a television interview on MSNBC, which had been pressing him to name his foreign advisory team, that he relied on his own instinct.

“I‘m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain,” he told MSNBC. “I know what I‘m doing. ... My primary consultant is myself.”

Additional reporting by David Alexander, Susan Heavey, Jonathan Landay, Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Warren Strobel; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Peter Cooney

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