By Haley Britzky and Oren Liebermann, CNN
(CNN) — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said Monday that “US credibility is at stake” in the wake of comments from former President Donald Trump that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO partners that don’t meet spending guidelines on defense.
Asked by “NBC Nightly News” about Trump’s admission that he would not abide by the collective-defense clause at the heart of NATO if reelected, Brown said that the alliance is strong and has been around for 75 years.
“I think we have a responsibility to uphold those alliances,” Brown told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview airing Monday evening. “US credibility is at stake with each of our alliances, and US leadership is still needed, wanted, and watched.”
“The US is committed,” Brown added. “And that’s the message I communicate, and that’s the message that’s been received.”
Brown’s remarks come as Trump, the 2024 Republican front-runner, has come under fire for his comments over the weekend indicating he does not intend to defend NATO allies from Russian attack if he is reelected.
At a rally in South Carolina Saturday, Trump recalled a conversation he had while president with “one of the presidents of a big country,” who asked him whether the US would defend them from a Russian invasion even if they “don’t pay.”
“No, I would not protect you,” he recalled saying. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”
According to NBC, Brown said that he realizes there will be “various dialogue in discussions at the political level,” but that he will focus on “continuing to build and strengthen our relationship with NATO.”
“My job is to make sure that we are doing everything we can with our NATO allies on the military aspect,” he said, “and I’ll continue to do that throughout.”
Brown, who was sworn in as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff last fall, serves as the principal military advisor to the president. The military officer who serves in the role does so at the pleasure of the president, meaning that if Trump were reelected this year, Brown could serve as his chairman unless he appointed another officer.
Gen. Mark Milley, Brown’s predecessor and Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs throughout his tenure, was a frequent target of Trump’s ire, and the two have taken verbal – sometimes subtle – shots at each other after Trump left the White House. In late September, at the change of command ceremony between Milley and Brown, the outgoing chairman made it a point to underscore where his loyalty and the loyalty of the military should lie.
“We don’t take an oath to a king, or a queen, or a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator,” Milley said at the time, in a veiled reference to Trump. “We take an oath to the Constitution and we take an oath to the idea that is America – and we’re willing to die to protect it.”
Milley chose to deliver the scathing criticism of his former boss in his last address as the nation’s top general as he stood next to President Joe Biden.
In a continuation of the acrimonious feud between the two, Trump fired back on social media, calling Milley a “moron” and “STUPID & VERY DANGEROUS!”
Brown addressed recent criticism of his boss Monday following mention of apparent memory lapses in special counsel Robert Hur’s report, calling Biden “pretty sharp.” Asked whether he was surprised by the comments made about the president’s memory, Brown said he was, adding they were “not characteristic of what I’ve seen.”
“He’s got a very good grasp of the issues,” Brown said. “He asks, I think, very pertinent questions.”
Iran likely ‘not looking for a broader conflict’ with US
As the US is navigating increasingly high tensions in the Middle East — from Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and Israel’s campaign in Gaza against Hamas — Brown echoed comments made by other US officials that deterrence is key.
Broadly, the US is focused on deterring “any further aggression,” Brown said, while also protecting American forces. Asked whether he believed Iran wants a war with the US, Brown responded, “I don’t know that they do.”
“Having watched Iran operate, they will do things through their militia groups and others to put pressure, to achieve their objectives,” the chairman said. “At the same time, not looking for a broader conflict with the United States.”
There have been at least 170 attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since October 17. The Pentagon said Monday that those attacks have resulted in 186 wounded or killed in action — including 130 traumatic brain injuries. Three US soldiers were killed in a drone attack in January on a US outpost in Jordan.
This story has been updated with additional information.
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