President Trump is getting a strong reaction after a Fox News interview in which he appeared to question the need to honor NATO's collective defense clause, while suggesting that newest alliance member Montenegro is a country of "aggressive people" who could trigger World War III.
A NATO official was quoted by Germany's DPA news agency as saying that Article 5 in the alliance's charter — which states that an attack on one member an attack on all — remains "unconditional and ironclad."
Meanwhile, an opposition politician in Montenegro questioned the president's knowledge of foreign policy and Sen. John McCain accused him of "playing right into Putin's hands."
Trump's comments are part of an interview aired Tuesday night on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight that was recorded earlier in Helsinki, the site of Trump's controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In it, host Carlson asked a hypothetical question: "Let's say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?" (You can see the exchange in the video above, starting at about 1:52.)
Trump responded: "I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question. You know Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people."
Carlson: "And I'm not against Montenegro. Or Albania."
The president then turned the premise of the question around, placing Montenegro – a country of about 620,000 people that joined NATO barely a year ago – in the role of aggressor.
"Right. By the way, they are very strong people," he said of the Balkan country. "They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you're in World War III."
"But that's the way it was set up," Trump continued, apparently referring to Article 5.
Trump's comments follow a testy NATO summit in Brussels in which he publicly badgered the alliance's secretary general. It also comes on the heels of remarks the president made at a news conference in Helsinki in which he appeared to take Putin's word that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. He later walked back his remarks, saying he misspoke.
The president's characterization of Montenegro hit a nerve in the country, especially since Russia strongly opposed the country joining NATO and "Russian state bodies" are implicated in an October 2016 plot to overthrow Montenegro's government and assassinate its prime minister.
(And then there was the infamous awkward encounter between Trump and Montenegro's prime minster at a NATO meeting last year in Brussels –where Trump shoves Duško Marković aside to better position himself in front of the cameras.)
Arizona Sen. McCain, in a tweet on Wednesday, chastised the president for his remarks, saying that "#Putin will do anything to shatter the transatlantic alliance" in a tweet that pointed to an editorial he wrote about the Montenegro coup plot that was first published last year in USA Today. In a separate tweet, McCain said, "By attacking Montenegro & questioning our obligations under NATO, the President is playing right into Putin's hands."
Speaking to the BBC, Ranko Krivokapic, who is president of Montenegro's opposition Social Democratic Party, called Trump "the strangest president in the history of the United States."
"With this kind of president, with his knowledge of foreign policy, who knows what is going on? Foreign policy is not his big thing," Krivokapic said.
NATO's collective defense clause has been activated only once in the alliance's nearly 70-year history — following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.