CLEVELAND (AP) — It’s Donald Trump’s big moment to make his case to the country — and to the many rattled doubters in his own party. The most important speech of his presidential campaign will bring down the balloons on a convention marked by divided loyalties and unwanted distractions as well as full-throated roars against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The latest diversion landed Thursday morning in an interview in which Trump declared he would set new conditions before coming to the aid of NATO allies. The remarks, in an interview with The New York Times, deviated from decades of U.S. foreign policy doctrine and seemed to suggest he would put new conditions on the 67-year-old alliance’s bedrock principle of collective defense.
As president, Trump said he would defend an ally against Russian aggression only after first ensuring that the allies have fulfilled their obligations to the U.S. “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” he said.
The comment put a finer point on the candidate’s previous criticism of NATO’s relevance, usefulness and increasing frustration that allies aren’t paying their fair share. It served up a fresh reminder of why Trump is such a hard nominee to swallow for many in the GOP establishment.
Intra-party divisions were sharply on display Wednesday night in a hall that echoed first with cheers for Trump’s fiercest opponent in the primaries, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, from his supporters, then thunderous boos from the pro-Trump masses when Cruz wrapped up his speech without endorsing the nominee.
Mike Pence’s acceptance speech as Trump’s running mate was overshadowed as a result, one more missed opportunity at a convention with a daily drip of them. That raised the stakes even higher for what is intended to be Trump’s triumphant turn on the stage Thursday night as he accepts the Republican nomination.
“No big deal!” Trump tweeted afterward about Cruz’s speech. He said Cruz did not honor the pledge that Republican primary candidates had made to support the eventual nominee.
He said he saw the text of Cruz’s speech two hours before it was delivered but thought, “let him speak anyway.”
Commanding the prime-time stage, Cruz mentioned Trump only once, congratulating him for winning the nomination but coming no closer than that to rallying behind him. Trump allies were furious. One of them, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, called Cruz “totally selfish.”
Trump adviser Paul Manafort said Cruz “used very bad judgment,”
“He was not respectful to the invitation by the convention to come and speak,” Manafort said Thursday on NBC’s “Today.” Eric Trump, on CBS’ “This Morning,” called it “classless.”
The episode made it hard for Pence, the Indiana governor and a favorite of conservatives who have decidedly mixed feelings about Trump, to make much of a splash.
“You have nominated a man for president who never quits,” Pence said. “Until now, he’s had to do it all by himself against all odds, but this week, with this united party, he’s got backup.”
Trump joined Pence on stage, applauding his new partner and leaning in nearly to give him a kiss on the cheek.
Pence insisted Thursday morning that Trump would stand our allies despite the comments, but said in an interview with Fox News that “those countries must pay their fair share.”
The Clinton campaign said Trump’s message to NATO allies was really, “maybe, maybe not.”
“Ronald Reagan would be ashamed. Harry Truman would be ashamed,” Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “Republicans, Democrats and independents who help build NATO into the most successful military alliance in history would all come to the same conclusion: Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit and fundamentally ill-prepared to be our commander in chief.”
The campaign had hoped Pence’s address would quiet Republican qualms about Trump.
But Cruz’s appearance left the arena unsettled for the night’s closing speakers. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to quiet the anger as he took the stage, going off script to try to explain away the senator’s lack of support for the nominee.
“Ted Cruz said you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution,” Gingrich said. “In this election there is only one candidate who will uphold the Constitution.”
The gathering’s open secret was that Cruz came to audition for 2020 — an ambition that largely counts on Trump losing this year.
Beyond that the two men have a history of animosity. The businessman has called the senator “Lyin’ Ted” and the senator branded Trump a “pathological liar” and “serial philanderer.”
Cruz told Trump in a phone conversation two days ago that he would not endorse him during his speech, according to Cruz aide Jason Johnson.
Still, Trump’s campaign invited Cruz to speak — as a headliner, no less. That decision was sure to spark a new round of second guessing about the campaign’s management of the convention and preparedness for the bruising campaign against Clinton.
For three days running the convention’s intended message of the day got sideswiped by unwelcome developments — a biting if short-lived scrap over rules during the opening, a storm over plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech that spilled into Wednesday, then Cruz’s performance from the stage.
Through it all Republicans savaged Clinton, painting an apocalyptic vision of America if she should win and aggressively challenging her character.
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Woodward reported from Washington.