Pompeo, Graham Back Trump Approach to Turkey Syria Incursion

Mark Niquette and Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Michael Pompeo led the defenders of President Donald Trump’s handling of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, saying Sunday that a cease-fire is holding and that U.S. goals in the Middle East are being met despite criticism allies are being betrayed.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a recent sharp critic of Trump’s Syria policy, also came around, saying the president was “thinking out of the box.” Earlier this month Graham suggested Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria made him want to vomit.

Pompeo said he received a report Sunday morning of “relatively little” fighting along the Syrian border after he and Vice President Mike Pence brokered a temporary cease-fire with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week. He insisted U.S. interests, including preventing ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in the region and a resurgence of Islamic State, or ISIS, are being served.

“I’m very confident that this administration’s efforts to crush ISIS will continue,” Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week.” The comment came a day after Erdogan referred to “crushing the heads of terrorists” after the ceasefire ends Tuesday night.

Parallel Universe

But New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others on the Sunday morning political shows called the administration’s actions a mistake that abandons the Kurds and other allies while bolstering Russia’s position in the Middle East.

“I think the secretary lives in a parallel, alternative universe,” Menendez said on ABC.

Former Army General David Petraeus said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the U.S. has abandoned its Syrian Kurdish partners, and called the U.S. actions “a grave, strategic mistake.”

“This does not end an endless war,” he said, a reference to comments Trump has made about bringing U.S. troops home. “It probably prolongs it.”

Critics say Trump gave Erdogan a green light to attack American-allied Kurdish militias, risking a resurgence of the Islamic State and a slaughter of the Kurds, by pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.

Policy by Tweet

The president often makes policy on the fly, said Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful. “What President Trump does is wake up in the morning and have a phone call or maybe a tweet and completely change years or even decades of U.S. policy, surprising his own generals and country,” Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party this year, said Trump knew what Turkey was going to do and can’t justify his response now.

“You don’t wait ’till after withdrawing the troops to make a plan to go pressure Turkey to ease up and then call for a cease-fire,” Amash said on “Meet the Press.” “I think it’s very difficult to put it all back together.”

Trump said in a tweet Sunday that the cease-fire is “holding up very nicely,” citing U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper -- whom he called “Mark Esperanto” before correcting the spelling after almost two hours.

Esper said about 1,000 U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State to prevent its resurgence, according to a transcript the Pentagon released of Esper’s comments to reporters on Saturday en route to Afghanistan.

The defense secretary said the U.S. would continue to provide air cover for any of its operations in Syria, and that he intends to discuss the “next phase” of the mission to counter the Islamic State with U.S. allies. Esper said he’s spoken with his French counterpart and the NATO secretary-general, and there’s a meeting on it planned this week in Brussels.

“That’s a top concern of mine, second only to protection of our forces coming out of Syria,” Esper said.

Graham said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that he spoke with the president this weekend and now sees a “historic” result possible in Syria that protects oil interests.

“President Trump is thinking outside the box,” Graham said. “I think we can end Syria successfully.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in Jordan this weekend, leading bipartisan talks about Turkey’s incursion into Syria.

‘Kangaroo Court’

“With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to ISIS, Iran and Russia,” Pelosi’s office said in a statement on Saturday.

Pompeo, meanwhile, rejected accusations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine for political reasons, saying “I never saw that in the decision-making process that I was a part of.”

He also said is “deeply unfair” that state department lawyers are not allowed into depositions that Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been holding in private as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

“This has been unfair in the Nth degree,” Pompeo said. “Adam Schiff ought to be embarrassed by the kangaroo court that he’s running.”

Pompeo declined to answer questions about State Department officials testifying and controversies swirling around Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Asked whether he will appear if called by Congress, Pompeo said, “I’ll do everything I’m required to do by law.”

Menendez said Pompeo and the State Department “have done everything humanly possible to impede, to obstruct and not to provide information,” and it’s clear that Trump tried to “extort” Ukraine in what he called the “weaponizing U.S. foreign assistance.”

(Updates with Esper comments from 14th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Hailey Waller.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net;Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Steve Geimann

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