Mr. Trump is fond of outright falsehoods in relaying stories to make himself look like a tough negotiator. His former national security adviser John Bolton, who has warned that Mr. Trump would withdraw the U.S. from NATO in a second term, said he had never heard Mr. Trump threaten another country’s leader that he would encourage a Russian invasion.
Another former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming Mr. Trump, delicately described the tale as “hyperbole.” Still another former official — H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s second national security adviser and a retired Army lieutenant general — gave a one-word assessment of Mr. Trump’s comments: “Irresponsible.”
Mr. Trump often praises Mr. Putin — he has described the invasion of Ukraine as the work of a “genius” — and has long admired him as a “strong” leader.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called on Russia to “find” emails that Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic nominee for president and a target of Mr. Putin, had deleted from her private email server. He has suggested Mr. Putin is no different, morally, from American leaders. When Bill O’Reilly, a former Fox News host, pressed Mr. Trump shortly after he took office on his admiration for Mr. Putin, saying that the Russian leader “is a killer,” Mr. Trump replied, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
But as president, Mr. Trump’s policies toward Russia were sometimes tougher than his predecessor’s — a point that Mr. Trump’s allies highlight when they dismiss statements such as Saturday’s as rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Trump’s allies, who claim he would not undermine NATO in a second term, point out that in his first term he approved sending antitank weapons to Ukraine, which President Obama had not done after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.