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Rare, and unapologetic, bipartisan congressional rebuke for Trump on Syria

Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Lindsey Graham, Liz Cheney all part with president

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s expressed his opposition to the president’s Syria policy in public and private. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s expressed his opposition to the president’s Syria policy in public and private. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary,” President Donald Trump said Wednesday when asked about criticism from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of his decision to effectively side with Turkey over the Kurdish population of Syria.

Graham, who is often an ally of the president, was comparing Trump’s move to pull back U.S. forces supporting the Kurds to the Obama administration policy of withdrawal from Iraq. The senator is chairman of both the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the State Department.

“The people of South Carolina don’t want us to get into a war with Turkey — a NATO member — or with Syria. Let them fight their own wars. They’ve been fighting for 1,000 years,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “Let them fight their own wars. The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home, and I won an election based on that. And that’s the way it is, whether it’s good or bad. That’s the way it is.”

Graham did not fall in line.

“When it comes to America’s national security I will NEVER be quiet,” he tweeted, echoing what he told reporters throughout the Capitol on Wednesday.

It’s not just Graham who is speaking out, though. Trump’s handling of U.S. policy toward Syria and Turkey has touched a particular nerve on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been among the more outspoken Republicans opposing the move.

“Any president has a lot of latitude in deploying troops, and many of us have been arguing that this was a mistake, it shouldn’t have been done, and hoping that he would reverse course,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I hope it’s not too late to stop this aggression. As messy as Syria was, this was working pretty well.”

McConnell reiterated that the Senate would be looking at the possibility of new sanctions against Turkey. Graham and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen are scheduled to unveil a new sanctions package Thursday.

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In the House, Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney also spoke out.

“We’ve been working very closely with the Senate, working very closely across the aisle as well,” the Wyoming congresswoman said. “But it’s very important to recognize the impact, in particular, that the Turks now are in a situation where we risk the resurgence of ISIS, where the Turks have gone in and we see evidence of atrocities being committed, and where our allies, the Kurds, frankly, are facing what looks like a betrayal from the United States that could have very negative consequences and impacts for us globally.”

Insults fly

All that came before Vice President Mike Pence departed Washington for meetings in Turkey that were also set to feature Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It also came before bipartisan congressional leadership went to the White House for a meeting with Trump that congressional Democrats said was filled with insults.

Trump called Speaker Nancy Pelosi either a third-rate or third-grade politician, depending on who was doing the recounting. 

The meeting took place just minutes after the House voted overwhelmingly, 354-60, on a resolution to condemn his Syria troop withdrawal. And Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol that before the meeting began, she reported to Trump the strong bipartisan vote.

“He couldn’t handle it. He just couldn’t handle it. [By] 2-to-1, the Republicans voted to oppose what he’s doing in Syria,” Pelosi said. “He just couldn’t handle it, so he tried to engage in a meltdown.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said he has never seen any president disrespect a congressional leader in such a way.

Sen. John Cornyn offered a potential defense for the Trump administration’s shift in policy.

“At first, it was kind of a shock of how precipitous the decision was,” the Texas Republican told CQ Roll Call. “The more that I’ve reflected on it, the more you’ve got to admit that it’s a very complex situation.”

“If President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan was determined to send the Turkish military down and that U.S. troops would be in danger of getting caught in the crossfire, I could understand why the president did what he did,” Cornyn said. “I don’t know whether Erdogan can be dissuaded or not, and I’m really concerned about what happens to the ISIS detainees.”

‘No angels’

For his part, Trump spent plenty of time Wednesday defending his decision to remove U.S. forces and essentially allow Turkey’s military to move onto Syrian soil. He even acknowledged of his move: “Everybody is complaining about it.”

The president also remained undeterred in his stance that the Turkish-Kurdish clash is not in America’s interests, even though lawmakers and terrorism experts are warning his willingness to move aside could allow the Islamic State to regain power and territory in northern Syria.

As lawmakers fretted, the “America first” president, who keeps reminding critics he campaigned on wrapping up the country’s “endless” post-9/11 conflicts, just shrugged.

“If Syria wants to fight for their land, that’s up to Turkey and Syria, as it has been for hundreds of years — they’ve been fighting,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And the Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years — that whole mess. It’s been going along for a long time.”

Trump even essentially endorsed a deal Kurdish leaders cut earlier this week with Syrian President Bashar Assad, which allowed his forces back into the northern part of the country.

“The Kurds are very well protected. Plus, they know how to fight,” he said, before trying to sow doubts about the longtime U.S. allies: “And, by the way, they’re no angels. But they were with us. They are no angels. But they are fighting.”

If Kurdish leaders are hoping for a presidential change of mind, Trump gave no indication Wednesday it’s coming. He noted the U.S. has “quite a contingent right nearby, of soldiers and of the finest [combat] equipment in the world.”

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon strategic planner and onetime aide to the late Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, said Trump’s decision means “the U.S. may now have to write off Syria and the Kurds.”

“If it is to remain the major strategic power in the rest of the Middle East and revive NATO as an effective alliance, however, it cannot go on relying on sanctions, empty military threats, sudden force withdrawals and bluster,” Cordesman said. “The U.S. needs to show it can make long-term commitments, develop effective strategies and actually implement them. So far, the United States has done far too little to demonstrate that it still has the capacity or resolve to do so.”

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