President Trump, as he often does, had a few things to say.
After admitting that he had been lonely over the holidays, Trump took advantage of his first public appearance of the new year Wednesday to air lingering grievances, make multiple false claims and reinforce recent decisions that have rattled financial markets and his party’s leaders.
As he held forth for more than 90 minutes before a small pool of reporters and photographers, members of his Cabinet, ostensibly called to the White House for a meeting, sat quietly around a long conference table.
Trump defended his decision last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and sharply cut the deployment to Afghanistan, moves that disturbed Republican allies in Congress and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James N. Mattis. In doing so, he contradicted his own recent claim that the U.S. had achieved its objectives of total victory over Islamic State militants in Syria.
“Syria was lost long ago,” he said.
“Look, we don’t want Syria,” he continued. “We’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death,” he said, seemingly contrasting the war-wracked country with Iraq and its vast oil reserves.
Iran “can do what they want there, frankly,” he added, a comment likely to unnerve officials in Israel, who have worried that a U.S. withdrawal from its positions in eastern Syria would allow Iran to expand its influence there.
“It’s not my fault,” he said. “I didn’t put us there.”
Trump offered little further clarity on the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which he initially said would take place in 30 days, saying now that the pullout will “take place over a period of time.”
Later, in a long riff about Afghanistan, Trump seemed to endorse Moscow’s 1979 invasion of the country — an act that the U.S. viewed as an attempt to spread communism and waged a long, covert operation to combat during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” Trump said, making a case to leave the policing of hot spots in the Mideast and Central Asia to countries in the region. “They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight.”
The Soviet Union eventually was bankrupted by its Afghan war, Trump added. “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.”
Historians generally agree that the Russian invasion and subsequent occupation of much of Afghanistan was one of several factors that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the country never went bankrupt.
For years, Republicans have credited President Reagan with bringing an end to the Soviet Union by his aggressive increase in U.S. military spending.
Trump’s comments stood in stark contrast to the view Mattis espoused in the resignation letter he presented last month after failing to convince the president to hold off on withdrawing from Syria.
“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” Mattis wrote.
Mattis’ comments clearly stung Trump, who responded last month with criticism of his former Pentagon chief. On Wednesday, he stepped that up, claiming that he fired Mattis.
“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Trump said. “As you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”
Obama did not fire Mattis, although the general did retire several months early in 2013 from his position as the head of the military’s Central Command after dissenting from Obama administration policy decisions.
Tuesday was Mattis’ final day at the Pentagon. Trump, in a fit of pique after the resignation letter became public, had moved up Mattis’ termination date
In addition to his foreign policy comments, Trump also downplayed December’s stock market losses, which erased all positive gains for the year, as “a little glitch” and asserted — wrongly — that there are “probably 30-35 million” immigrants in the U.S. illegally. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimates that as of 2016, there were 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country, a number that has declined in recent years.
Trump repeated his call for Democrats to agree to $5.6 billion in funding for a border wall, and expressed surprise not to have received overtures from them over the holidays to negotiate an end to the government shutdown.
“I was in the White House all by myself for six or seven days,” he said. “It was very lonely. My family was down in Florida. I said, ‘Stay there and enjoy yourself.’ I felt I should be here just in case people wanted to come and negotiate the border security.”
Trump, who met later in the day with congressional leaders away from TV cameras, has already dismissed a funding proposal from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi that includes $1.3 billion in border security funding.
While leaving the door open to a compromise, Trump continued to argue for the importance of a wall, pointing to other examples of barriers. He incorrectly asserted that Obama’s Washington residence is surrounded by a 10-foot wall and cited the Vatican, which he said “has the biggest wall of them all.”
“When they say the wall is immoral, then you better do something about the Vatican,” he said. “Walls work.”
As Trump spoke, a “Game of Thrones”-style movie poster teasing Iran sanctions — “SANCTIONS ARE COMING,” it read — lay unfurled across the table directly in front of him. But he made no remarks on the subject.
He did, however, comment on Sen.-elect Mitt Romney of Utah, who wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday that he was troubled by Trump’s “deep descent in December” and that his deficit in “presidential leadership in qualities of character … has been most glaring.”
“I wish Mitt could be more of a team player,” Trump said. “And if he’s not, that’s OK too.”
Seeming to warn Romney about the fate that lies ahead for Republican lawmakers who vocally criticize him and his presidency, Trump boasted that he “got rid of” former Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, both of whom opted not to seek new terms last year.
Accusing both men of seeking publicity in taking stands against him, Trump suggested that Flake would be seeking a job as a paid cable news contributor — or perhaps in another profession that Trump himself once plied.
“Jeff Flake is now selling real estate or whatever he’s doing,” he said dismissively.