Lindsey Graham to President Trump: `I will hold you accountable' on Turkey's actions in Syria

Deirdre Shesgreen and Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bipartisan Turkey sanctions bill Thursday that would go far beyond the economic penalties President Donald Trump has imposed – widening the rift between the two Republicans over Trump's controversial decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. 

“Mr. President, as much as I like you and want to work with you, I am going to be consistent and I will hold you accountable," Graham said at a news conference unveiling the bill.

He spoke shortly before Vice President Mike Pence announced from Turkey that the two governments agreed to a five-day pause on military operations in Syria.

In exchange, Pence said, the Trump administration agreed not to impose additional sanctions on Turkey. And once there is a permanent ceasefire in place, the U.S. will lift sanctions that Trump imposed on Turkey Monday.

Graham applauded the temporary ceasefire but warned it’s just a first step in what needs to happen. He said he'll continue to seek support for his proposal in the Senate.

The legislation, which Graham introduced with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would target Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal finances and sanction the Turkish armed forces, among other entities.

“This measure gut punches Turkey,” said Van Hollen.

Graham said the sanctions are needed not just to fix the situation in Syria, but because China, Russian and Iran are also watching and need to be told they can't act with impunity.

Graham has been one of Trump's most vocal defenders in other controversies, from the Russia investigation to the Ukraine impeachment probe. But on Syria, the South Carolina senator and ardent defense hawk has become Trump's chief antagonist.

Graham was among the first to denounce Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, which he and others said gave Turkey a green light to attack the Kurdish forces who helped the U.S. battle the Islamic State, also called ISIS. Graham called the move a "stain on America's honor" and said it was the "biggest mistake" of Trump's presidency.

On Wednesday, after Trump disparaged the Kurds as "no angels" and said the Turkey-Syria conflict was "not our problem," Graham unleashed a new salvo at the president. 

Trump "will have American blood on his hands if he abandons Kurds because ISIS will come back, and if any American is killed anywhere because a resurgent ISIS, it will fall on the Trump administration like it did (former President Barack) Obama," Graham said.

Asked about Graham's comments, Trump fired back. 

"Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next 1,000 years," Trump said during a White House news conference.  

But Graham is hardly alone in the Republican backlash against Trump. On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. And on Thursday, GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger blasted Trump after news reports that the U.S. military had to bomb some of its own facilities in Syria, so that enemy forces couldn't glean information from the abandoned American sites. 

"Wow. We bombed our own base on purpose, because of the impulsive decision by @realDonaldTrump didn’t leave time to evacuate the right way. Is this the America you grew up believing in?" Kingzinger tweeted

The Trump administration on Monday announced new U.S. sanctions targeting several the Turkish ministers of defense, interior and energy, as well as two of the country's agencies. Trump also said he would hike steel tariffs on Turkey to 50% from 25%. 

Critics in Congress say those penalties are a woefully inadequate response to Turkey's decision to invade Syria. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., derided Trump's sanctions as a "wet noodle."

The Graham-Van Hollen sanctions bill mirrors one introduced last week by the chairman House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, and his GOP counterpart, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

The House measure would block U.S. arms sales to Turkey, ban top Turkish officials from entering the U.S. and impose sanctions on Turkish financial institutions that facilitate transactions for the country’s military and defense industry.

It would also require the Trump administration to create a plan for helping the Kurdish communities in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. 

“What am I urging? Just listen to the commanders. Don’t listen to Rand Paul. Don’t listen to me. We’ll go play golf and we’ll talk about golf," Graham said Thursday before the cease fire was announced. "If you don’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m a warmonger and want to stay forever, just write me off. All I’m asking is that you do what President Obama did not do: Listen and adjust.”

Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Christal Hayes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lindsey Graham, Trump ally, introduces Turkey sanctions bill in Senate