During a 45-minute conversation, he explicitly raised new questions about his commitment to automatically defend NATO allies if they are attacked, saying he would first look at their contributions to the alliance.
CLEVELAND — Donald Trump, on the eve of accepting the Republican nomination for president, said Wednesday that if he were elected, he would not pressure Turkey or other authoritarian allies about conducting purges of their political adversaries or cracking down on civil liberties. The United States, he said, has to “fix our own mess” before trying to alter the behavior of other nations.
“I don’t think we have a right to lecture,” Trump said in a wide-ranging interview in his suite in a downtown hotel here, while keeping an eye on television broadcasts from the Republican National Convention. “Look at what is happening in our country,” he said. “How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?”
During a 45-minute conversation, he explicitly raised new questions about his commitment to automatically defend NATO allies if they are attacked, saying he would first look at their contributions to the alliance. Trump re-emphasized the hard-line nationalist approach that has marked his improbable candidacy, describing how he would force allies to shoulder defense costs that the United States has borne for decades, cancel longstanding treaties he views as unfavorable, and redefine what it means to be a partner of the United States.
He said the rest of the world would learn to adjust to his approach. “I would prefer to be able to continue” existing agreements, he said, but only if allies stopped taking advantage of what he called an era of American largesse that was no longer affordable.
Giving a preview of his address to the convention on Thursday night, he said that he would press the theme of “America First,” his rallying cry for the past four months, and that he was prepared to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada if he could not negotiate radically better terms.
He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.
For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Trump said he was pleased that the controversy over similarities between passages in a speech by his wife, Melania, to the convention on Monday night and one that Michelle Obama gave eight years ago appeared to be subsiding. “In retrospect,” he said, it would have been better to explain what had happened — that an aide had incorporated the comments — a day earlier.
When asked what he hoped people would take away from the convention, Trump said, “The fact that I’m very well liked.”
Trump conceded that his approach to dealing with the United States’ allies and adversaries was radically different from the traditions of the Republican Party — whose candidates, since the end of World War II, have almost all pressed for an internationalist approach in which the United States is the keeper of the peace, the “indispensable nation.”
“This is not 40 years ago,” Trump said, rejecting comparisons of his approaches to law-and-order issues and global affairs to Richard Nixon’s. Reiterating his threat to pull back U.S. troops deployed around the world, he said, “We are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion,” citing what he called America’s trade losses. “That doesn’t sound very smart to me.”
Trump repeatedly defined American global interests almost purely in economic terms. Its roles as a peacekeeper, as a provider of a nuclear deterrent against adversaries like North Korea, as an advocate of human rights and as a guarantor of allies’ borders were each quickly reduced to questions of economic benefit to the United States.
No presidential candidate in modern times has ordered American priorities that way, and even here, several speakers have called for a far more interventionist policy, more reminiscent of George W. Bush’s party than of Trump’s.
But Trump gave no ground, whether the subject was countering North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats or dealing with China in the South China Sea. The forward deployment of U.S. troops abroad, he said, while preferable, was not necessary.
“If we decide we have to defend the United States, we can always deploy” from American soil, Trump said, “and it will be a lot less expensive.”
Many military experts dispute that view, saying the best place to keep missile defenses against North Korea is in Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Maintaining such bases only in the United States can be more expensive because of the financial support provided by Asian nations.
Trump’s discussion of the crisis in Turkey was telling, because it unfolded at a moment in which he could plainly imagine himself in the White House, handling an uprising that could threaten a crucial ally in the Middle East. The United States has a major air base at Incirlik in Turkey, where it carries out attacks on the Islamic State and keeps a force of drones and about 50 nuclear weapons.
Trump had nothing but praise for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s increasingly authoritarian but democratically elected leader.
“I give great credit to him for being able to turn that around,” Trump said of the coup attempt on Friday night. “Some people say that it was staged, you know that,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
Asked if Erdogan was exploiting the coup attempt to purge his political enemies, Trump did not call for the Turkish leader to observe the rule of law, or Western standards of justice.
“When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger,” he said.
The Obama administration has refrained from any concrete measures to pressure Turkey, fearing for the stability of a crucial ally in a volatile region. But Secretary of State John F. Kerry has issued several statements urging Erdogan to follow the rule of law.
Trump offered no such caution for restraint to Turkey and nations like it. However, his argument about America’s moral authority is not a new one: Russia, China, North Korea and other autocratic nations frequently cite violence and disorder on American streets to justify their own practices, and to make the case that the United States has no standing to criticize to them.
Trump said he was convinced that he could persuade Erdogan to put more effort into fighting the Islamic State. But the Obama administration has run up, daily, against the reality that the Kurds — among the most effective forces the United States is supporting against the Islamic State — are being attacked by Turkey, which fears they will create a breakaway nation.
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Asked how he would solve that problem, Trump paused, then said: “Meetings.”
Ousting President Bashar Assad of Syria, he said, was a far lower priority than fighting the Islamic State — a conclusion the White House has also reached, but has not voiced publicly.
“Assad is a bad man,” Trump said. “He has done horrible things.” But the Islamic State, he said, poses a far greater threat to the United States.
He said he had consulted two former Republican secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Henry Kissinger, saying he had gained “a lot of knowledge,” but did not describe any new ideas about national security that they had encouraged him to explore.
Trump emphatically underscored his willingness to drop out of NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada agreed to negotiate new terms that would discourage U.S. companies from moving manufacturing out of the United States. “I would pull out of NAFTA in a split second,” he said.
He talked of funding a major military buildup, starting with a modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal. “We have a lot of obsolete weapons,” he said. “We have nuclear that we don’t even know if it works.”
The Obama administration has a major modernization program under way, focused on making the nuclear arsenal more reliable, though it has begun to confront the huge cost of upgrading bombers and submarines. That staggering bill, estimated at $500 billion or more, will land on the desk of the next president.
Trump used the “America First” slogan in an earlier interview with The New York Times, but on Wednesday he insisted he did not mean it in the way that Charles A. Lindbergh and other isolationists used it before World War II.
“To me, ‘America First’ is a brand-new, modern term,” he said. “I never related it to the past.”
He paused a moment when asked what it meant to him.
“We are going to take care of this country first,” he said, “before we worry about everyone else in the world.”