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Politics

Trump looks increasingly isolated over Syria withdrawal

Donald Trump
President Trump speaks during a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump found himself increasingly isolated Wednesday as members of his own party joined a House resolution condemning his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, congressional Democrats stormed out of a White House strategy session and top administration officials departed on an uncertain diplomatic mission to Turkey.

The rising tensions in the White House underscored the difficulty Trump is facing in navigating twin crises that are inflaming all elements of government — an impeachment probe at home and Turkey’s invasion into Kurdish strongholds of Syria, a move triggered by Trump’s abrupt troop withdrawal.

For the record:
12:50 PM, Oct. 16, 2019 A previous version of this article quoted Trump as saying Syria is “not our problem.” He said it is “not our border.”

During a White House meeting with congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) described Trump as having a “meltdown,” shaken by the House vote, and attacking her as “a third-grade politician” with communist sympathies.

“This was not a dialogue. It was sort of a diatribe. A nasty diatribe,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican, blamed Pelosi, who “tries to make everything political.” He insisted the meeting was productive after she left.

Trump later tweeted a photograph of the meeting showing Pelosi standing and talking to him, which he described as showing her in a “meltdown.” Pelosi quickly adopted the photo for the top of her Twitter account.

The meeting was Trump’s first face-to-face engagement with top Democrats since Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry last month, though the speaker said impeachment was not discussed at the meeting.

Regardless of who was to blame, the aborted meeting suggested that even an international crisis is not enough to prompt cooperation between Trump and a Democratic-led House that is seeking to impeach him. As Pelosi left, Trump said, “Goodbye. We’ll see you at the polls,” according to a senior Democratic aide.

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Earlier in the day, even as Republicans voiced concern about Trump’s withdrawal, the president offered a glib assessment of the United States’ onetime allies in the region, the Kurds, who are facing atrocities and the loss of limited autonomy that American troops had helped secure before Trump ordered the hasty withdrawal this month.

“They’re no angels,” Trump said while meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House.

“It’s not our border,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. There’s a lot of sand they can play with.”

Other American leaders disagreed, fearing a cascade of consequences from the withdrawal, including threats to remaining U.S. soldiers’ safety, the loss of American credibility in the region, an emboldened Russia and the escape of Islamic State militants in the chaos, which has already begun.

“I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been a close ally of Trump’s. “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking.”

Trump dismissed the criticism, saying Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and will play a key role in the impeachment process, would prefer to keep U.S. troops in the Middle East indefinitely.

“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers, and fighting other people’s wars. I want to get out of the Middle East. I think Lindsey should focus right now on Judiciary.”

Graham would not be silenced. “With all due respect to the president, I think I’m elected to have a say about our national security, that in my view what is unfolding in Syria is going to be a disaster. I hope I’m wrong. I will not be quiet.”

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Other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah, have called the U.S. withdrawal a “mistake.” McConnell, who opened his weekly news conference expressing his gratitude to the Kurds, noted that the previous status quo with about 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria had been keeping the peace.

“As messy as Syria was, this was working pretty well,” McConnell said. “A mere 1,000 troops was keeping the Russians out, the Iranians out, ISIS bad guys in jail, and the Kurds did the heavy lifting.”

Shortly before the White House meeting with congressional leaders, the House passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the president’s decision. It called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw and urged the Trump administration to continue supporting the Kurds.

The measure passed 354-60, with strong Republican support, a rarity in the House, where GOP members are usually strongly loyal to Trump.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the highest ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he understands the administration’s desire to remove troops from the region, but said he is “concerned about the extreme long-term damage” of the decision.

“Leaving northwest Syria now does not resolve the problem that brought us there in the first place,” McCaul said.

On Thursday, Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are scheduled to introduce legislation to sanction Turkey’s political and military leaders and block Turkey from purchasing U.S. military supplies or ammunition. On Wednesday, the No. 3 Republican in the House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and 90 other Republicans filed companion legislation sanctioning Turkey.

As the division in Trump’s party festered, the administration sent contradictory messages.

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Despite Trump’s continued insistence that his decision was correct and the U.S. should stay out of the conflict, Vice President Mike Pence set off on a diplomatic mission to Turkey to try to end the violence.

Erdogan, who has been known to renege on meetings, offered mixed signals about whether he would meet with the vice president. Trump later announced that the Turkish leader had agreed to meet Pence, who is traveling with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

“The very idea that the more and more autocratic Erdogan could say even for 24 hours that he wasn’t going to meet with the vice president of the United States who was going to Turkey to see him is an outrageous thing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.

The diplomatic slight compounded challenges for a trip that was already fraught. Trump had appeared to give Erdogan a green light to invade Kurdish territory, a long-standing goal for Turkey. But the U.S. administration has since imposed sanctions and now claims, at least in some statements, that Pence will press Erdogan to pull back.

Trump now denies he ever approved of Turkey’s incursion, despite a White House statement issued in advance that announced the Turkish military operation was imminent and the U.S. was leaving the area. Trump said again on Wednesday that he expected Turkey to invade, given their desire to create a buffer against the Kurds. During his meeting with congressional leaders, he brought out a letter he said he wrote three days after the pullout was announced, using blunt terms to warn Erdogan against an invasion.

On Monday, Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin asserted that Trump favored a cease-fire. But the president himself has been vague on his goals, even as Turkish troops continue to kill and displace Kurds, and Russians and Syrians make their own incursions into northern Syria.

Erdogan has so far made clear that he does not intend to halt his offensive.

Times staff writer Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.


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