The question of the day is how seriously to take President Donald Trump's answer to a pundit's question about a U.S.-allied Balkan nation with a population about the size of Baltimore's.
Tucker Carlson, who is one of the president's off-payroll boosters at Fox News, was doing his best Tuesday night to douse the Vladimir Putin summit controversy in Helsinki. In an interview, Carlson suggested a hypothetical in which NATO commitments could pose a problem.
“Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member that’s attacked,” Carlson said.
“So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”
Carlson's query sounded quite valid. If the Cold War is really over, does the U.S. need to keep decades-old military commitments in Western Europe? Are there underrated benefits to the nation's tilting more toward Russia? Or do Russia's proven ambitions in the region pose a threat to national sovereignties worth U.S. protection?
Trump rolled right along with Carlson's prompt. “I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” the president said. “They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
If a U.S. president evokes World War III, obviously people best listen. But this is Trump, with his growing record of seat-of-the-pants assessments, blurts, non-explanations, hollow conspiracy claims and reversals of what he said only a day before.
The absence of clarity breeds speculation.
Did Putin and Trump actually discuss Montenegro in their secretive two-hour, one-on-one session in Finland? They might have had reason.
A coup attempt in the capital city of Podgorica was planned for Oct. 16, 2016, the day of a parliamentary election, Montenegro's authorities charged. Allegedly, the pro-Russian opposition sought to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO — which occurred anyway in June 2017 at the State Department headquarters in Washington.
Two Russian nationals were among those indicted in the coup plot. Putin's regime denies any involvement.
Montenegro has been supporting the NATO effort in Afghanistan since 2010.
By way of further background: During the 1990s, NATO bombings in the Balkans were taken as humiliations of post-Soviet Russia.
So rhetorically, Trump seemed to be aligning himself again with Putin. And on Wednesday, he said the U.S. is no longer the target of Russian cyberattacks — once again at odds with the intelligence services he directs.
Trump's remarks about Montenegrans as an "aggressive people" instantly revived an odd moment in May of last year when he was caught on camera shoving its Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way during a photo op at the annual NATO summit in Brussels.
But again, the question lingers as to what impact all this Trump talk may have.