CLEVELAND, OHIO -- Donald Trump heads into the final night of the Republican convention here tonight as the party’s official nominee and faces the most important speech of his brief political life. In addition to trying to mend the divisions in the Republican Party, revealed in a controversial speech by his former rival Ted Cruz last night, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said that Trump would also address current affairs at some length.
In a press conference Thursday morning, Manafort acknowledged that it is somewhat unusual for a candidate to address current affairs at length in an acceptance speech, but that the circumstances warrant it.
“Mr. Trump’s speech will focus on his vision,” he said. “Given the circumstances of what’s been going on in the world and the United States over the past month, there will be a section in it that will be -- a bit more than normal in a convention speech -- that will deal with current affairs such as the crisis facing cities and terrorism facing the world.”
Signaling that Trump will depart from the usual bromides to address current events may raise the level of public interest in the speech. In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday morning, Trump again raised the possibility that the US might not honor its treaty obligations to NATO allies if they don’t honor their financial obligations, raising questions about whether or not he has a solid grasp on major issues in international affairs.
Discussing NATO allies, with whom the US has a mutual defense treaty, reporter David Sanger asked, “If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?”
Trump declined to say. “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama -- that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.”
When reminded of US treaty obligations, Trump said, “We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills...Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing.”
Sanger tried again: “My point here is, can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if Russia attacked them? And count on us fulfilling our obligations.
“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
When Manafort was asked Thursday morning if Trump was setting “a new standard for helping NATO allies” he avoided the question entirely.
“No,” he said, not addressing the question about the Baltics at all. “What Mr. Trump has said consistently is that he thinks NATO needs to be modernized, and NATO needs to be brought into the world of the 21st century. Where terrorism and ISIS, which didn’t exist when NATO was created, are taken into account in the way we deal with things.”
In the interview, Trump also suggested that the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists -- who have been at each other’s throats for nearly 40 years -- are friends who can simply be brought together through “meetings.”
“Well, it would be ideal if we could get them all together,” Trump said. “And that would be a possibility. But I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we have a potentially — we could have a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together.”
Sanger asked Trump if he has a diplomatic plan for doing that.
“Meetings,” Trump said. “If I ever have the opportunity to do it, meaning if I win, we will have meetings, we will have meetings very early on...Very early on. I think it’s a natural. I think it’s a natural. I mean, we have two groups that are friendly and they are fighting each other. So if we could put them together, that would be something that would be possible to do, in my opinion.”
When Trump takes the stage tonight, there is no question about what will happen inside the arena. There is virtually no chance that his remarks won’t be well received by the vast majority of the thousands of GOP delegates in attendance.
But acceptance speeches like this one always have a broader audience in mind -- it’s Trump’s first opportunity to command the stage as the official GOP presidential candidate, and to present himself to the American people as a whole.
One of Trump’s notable shortcomings throughout his campaign has been the kind of apparent ignorance of basic facts about international relations that he displayed in The Times interview.
In going in-depth on foreign policy tonight, he takes a risk. A speech that reinforces the idea that he is a dilettante at a time when the world appears to be spinning out of control would be a poor way to start his general election campaign.
However, in speaking to what will likely be the biggest nationwide -- even worldwide -- audience he has yet faced, he also has an opportunity to project new seriousness on an issue that is causing Americans increasing concern. How he handles it will suggest much about the direction of the Trump campaign in the future.