(Bloomberg) -- A White House meeting between Donald Trump and congressional leaders to contain fallout from the Syria crisis broke down abruptly Wednesday, with the president hurling insults at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused him of having a “meltdown.”
Pelosi said Trump appeared to be “shaken” after 129 Republican lawmakers backed a resolution rebuking him for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s insults of Pelosi during a “nasty diatribe” prompted Democratic leaders to leave.
A Democratic source familiar with the discussion said the president erupted after Schumer quoted Trump’s former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said Sunday on NBC that if the U.S. doesn’t keep up pressure, Islamic State “will resurge.”
Trump then called Mattis “the world’s most overrated general” and gave himself, not the former Marine Corps general, credit for defeating Islamic State, according to the person, who asked for anonymity to give details about the conversation.
Schumer confirmed Trump’s comment regarding Mattis during an interview with MSNBC Thursday, but added that the “greatest insult” that came during the meeting was the Trump administration’s lack of an adequate policy to contain ISIS. After Democrats pressed for details on who will guard overseas camps that hold detainees, the administration said Turkey and Syria will guard the camps, Schumer said.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement Wednesday that Trump “was measured, factual and decisive, while Speaker Pelosi’s decision to walk out was baffling, but not surprising. She had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues.”
The meeting blow-up punctuated a tumultuous day in Washington that began with Trump defending his decision to leave Syria and expose U.S. Kurdish allies to Turkey’s forces, triggering a harsh back-and-forth between Trump and one of his usual defenders. Then came the emergence of a breezy letter from Trump to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning him “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
As Trump recounted it at an event Wednesday evening, “It was a wild day.”
He has been trying to contain the damage from what even his supporters in Congress say may be his biggest foreign policy crisis. The White House meeting, which included the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate as well as the chairmen and ranking members of key committees, was supposed to be part of that.
Republicans faulted Pelosi and Schumer for walking out of the meeting, accusing them of acting for political reasons.
“She storms out of another meeting trying to make it unproductive,” said House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. “Unfortunately the speaker tries to make everything political.”
He said the meeting did get heated on both sides. While he didn’t dispute Schumer’s characterization of Trump insults directed at Pelosi, he called the speaker’s behavior “just unbecoming.”
Although several of the Democrats remained behind after Pelosi and Schumer left, there was little chance of anything being accomplished. And Trump continued to taunt Pelosi hours after it ended, including during a time he was supposed to be at an event honoring the Italian Republic with visiting Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
He continued into the night, with a series of tweets attacking Pelosi.
Trump is facing sharp criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum for his sudden move last week to allow Turkey to proceed with a military operation in northern Syria and pull American forces from the area. The withdrawal left exposed Kurdish fighters who had fought for several years alongside American troops against Islamic State and are now under attack from the Turkish military.
The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution rebuking Trump for that decision.
Some of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate also denounced the action. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the president’s decision an “utter national security disaster in the making.”
Trump insisted the U.S. shouldn’t get involved in any conflict between Turkey and Syria, dismissing the region as “a lot of sand.”
“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers fighting other people’s wars,” Trump said.
Trip to Turkey
Still, the administration is attempting to mitigate the potential effects. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo are scheduled to travel to Turkey this week and to meet Erdogan.
The Trump administration plans to impose additional sanctions on Turkey if there’s no cease-fire, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Wednesday.
Trump also wrote the letter to Erdogan, which he handed out to the lawmakers at the meeting.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” according to the Oct. 9 letter, reported earlier by Fox Business Network and confirmed by the White House. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.”
On Wednesday evening, Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced a sanctions measure, calling it “an appropriate response in order for Turkey to be held accountable for its military invasion of northern Syria.”
Schumer said while he was in the meeting, Trump offered no plan for containing Islamic State with the U.S. out of Syria. He said he asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was also present, whether there was any intelligence indicating Syrian or Turkish forces would guard Islamic State prisoners with the same diligence as the Kurds.
“And he said, no, he didn’t know of any,” Schumer said.
Pelosi said the current House impeachment inquiry of Trump didn’t come up at the meeting. She said she didn’t know if that issue might have been behind Trump’s reaction.
Schumer and Pelosi gave different accounts of what insult Trump called her, with Schumer saying it was “third-rate politician” and Pelosi saying she heard “third grade.”
“Unfortunately the president came in angry and defensive and frankly it got worse from there,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said after returning to the Capitol. “At that point the meeting deteriorated into a very disrespectful assertion about the speaker of the House.”
(Updates with Schumer in fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich, Justin Sink and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
To contact the reporters on this story: Erik Wasson in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Anna Edgerton, John Harney
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.