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Congress gives new NATO leader blank slate — despite past Trump criticisms

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Mark Rutte is grabbing the reins of NATO at a perilous time for the alliance — but he’ll be starting with effectively a blank slate among U.S. lawmakers.

House members, even those with extensive foreign policy portfolios, say they’ve yet to hear from the incoming secretary general of NATO and many lawmakers know next to nothing about him. That means Rutte, who the alliance formally selected as its next leader on Wednesday, will have significant work to do to establish and develop relationships with U.S. lawmakers tasked with doling out dollars and military assistance internationally.

Democrats who do know the incumbent Dutch prime minister had warm words about his capabilities even as they acknowledged potential friction — particularly if former President Donald Trump regains the White House. Current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg still holds the post until Oct. 1, a possible reason U.S. lawmakers said they’d not yet had direct outreach from Rutte.

“Having had to navigate European politics, I would say he’s well-prepared to handle ours as well,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), president of the NATO parliamentary assembly, told POLITICO.

Connolly said he, along with a bipartisan U.S. delegation, met with Rutte last summer and found him to be “smart, accomplished, politically skilled, very affable, easy to relate to … I think our whole delegation liked him.”

Republicans were a bit more circumspect, signaling they were looking forward to working with Rutte but not praising him outright. While Rutte is generally known for a low-key and consensus-building leadership style, he has directly confronted Trump multiple times, particularly after the then-president threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO. Those threats could easily continue if Trump wins the White House, and NATO already has significant existing problems given the threat of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“NATO is in place because people like Putin exist,” said Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), another member of the NATO parliamentary assembly. “You got to pull your own weight. Every country brings different capabilities to the table. All of our countries in NATO — whether it’s manpower, whether it’s technology — what they all need to bring to the table is commitment.”

The prime minister’s experience in assembling complex coalitions makes Rutte a “great choice” to take over the alliance, according to Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), as NATO tries to insulate itself from possible attacks by Trump should he regain the White House.

“He’s widely respected, has a lot of support within NATO, which of course gets him off on a good start,” Crow, another member of the parliamentary assembly, said in a brief interview. “Secretary General Stoltenberg did an incredible job. Mr. Rutte, he’s got big shoes to fill but I think he’s up to the task.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who is also head of the U.S. delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly, extended “sincere congratulations” to Rutte on Wednesday in a statement and said he looked forward to “strengthening the Alliance and bolstering our collective defense capabilities.”

Conservatives pronounced themselves agnostic about Rutte’s ascension, but indicated he should prepare himself for Trump to adopt a similar stance toward the alliance if Trump returns.

“I would anticipate if President Trump was reelected that he will continue to support NATO, but press Europe to do its fair share in NATO,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a brief interview.

“I think President Trump also will be rightly reluctant to engage in foreign adventurism. I think one of the mistakes of the Biden administration is being far too eager to engage in foreign adventurism,” the Texas Republican added.

The offices of Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether Rutte had reached out. The House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders, Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), said they knew Rutte — but Meeks said he not heard from him since he won the nod to lead the alliance.

“The key is the dialogue and conversation between the NATO nations, to make sure everyone is doing their fair share and working together,” said Meeks. “And I think that if he does that [that] helps with every member — Democrat, Republican.”

Miles Herszenhorn contributed to this report.