(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump defended his decision to abruptly pull U.S. forces from Syria, rejecting criticism from key GOP supporters in Congress that he abandoned Kurdish allies and allowed Russia to fill the void.
Tensions between Trump and lawmakers boiled over Wednesday afternoon during a White House meeting, where the president had a “meltdown” discussing his decision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. Earlier, Trump reacted forcefully when his comments earlier drew a swift rebuke from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who called Trump’s decision an “utter national security disaster in the making.”
“The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home and I won an election based on that,” Trump said during a joint press conference Wednesday at the White House with Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “And that’s the way it is, whether it’s good or bad, that’s the way it is. And if you look at this country I’d be willing to bet anything -- political instinct -- that’s what the country wants.”
Trump is facing sharp criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum. The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution rebuking Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces.
Trump has been trying to contain the damage from 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 fought for several years alongside American troops against Islamic State and are now under attack from the Turkish military.
Trump rejected the notion that he gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light for the invasion and also was dismissive of the Kurds. “They’re not angels,” he said of the Kurds.
Trump insisted the U.S. shouldn’t get involved in any conflict between Turkey and Syria.
“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.
The president said: “We can fight our own battles on our own territories.”
Democratic leaders said they walked out of a meeting with Trump Wednesday afternoon at the White House after the president insulted Pelosi.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and said she could probably relate to communists who are part of Islamic State.
“This was not a dialogue -- it was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe,” Schumer said.
Pelosi said the president had a “meltdown” and was “not relating to the reality” of the House vote condemning his action.
Trump also is facing criticism from a number of Republicans. Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, a member of GOP House leadership, has introduced a bill to sanction Turkey, adding to similar bipartisan proposals in the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hailed the Kurds as “great fighters” and valuable partners in the alliance battling Islamic State who “deserved our loyalty.”
“Many of us have been arguing that this was a mistake,” McConnell said of the president’s decision.
Utah Senator Mitt Romney, a frequent Trump critic, called the U.S. withdrawal a strategic mistake that “represents one of the darkest days in American foreign policy history.”
Republican Representative John Shimkus of Illinois, who graduated from West Point and has consistently backed the president, called the moves “despicable” and said the U.S. has “stabbed our allies in the back.”
Graham, a frequent golf partner of Trump’s, warned that Islamic State will come back without U.S. troops.
“The president’s decision here I think is the biggest mistake of his presidency,” Graham said. “Here’s what I would tell the president. You are doing this against sound military advice. Forget about me, listen to your own people. You’re not.”
About the time Trump was speaking at the White House Wedesnday, Syrian troops were reported to be entering the key city of Kobani, part of a deal President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have with Kurdish militias to fend off Turkey’s offensive.
Syrian forces also expanded their deployment in Raqqa earlier in the day, state-run Sana news agency said, showing images of troops in army gear, carrying their national flag and pictures of Assad as they made their way to the area.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo are scheduled to travel to Turkey this week and to meet with Erdogan. Pompeo said Wednesday on Fox Business Network that Trump is sending him and Pence because he “felt it was important that we do this at the most senior levels of the United States government to speak to him face-to-face.”
In his White House remarks, Trump said it didn’t harm U.S. strategic interests if Russia moved into the territory where the U.S. withdrew.
“Syria may have some help with Russia and that’s fine,” Trump said. “It’s a lot of sand. They’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
Trump suggested that Russian involvement in the region would eventually prove costly, drawing parallels with the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.
“It used to be called the Soviet Union, now it’s called Russia for a reason -- because they lost so much money in Afghanistan they had to downsize,” Trump said. “So if Russia wants to get involved with Syria that’s really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem with the border.”
Trump said “Syria is friendly with the Kurds” and they “are much safer right now.”
Trump also said the PKK -- the militant separatist group that seeks an autonomous region for Kurds inside Turkey -- was “as tough or tougher than ISIS” and posed a greater terror threat.
The PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., but the group’s attacks are directed almost exclusively at Turkish officials and others in the region.
But Islamic State-directed or inspired attacks have been repeatedly conducted on American soil. The group has also targeted attacks at U.S. allies, including France and the U.K.
Turkish forces invaded northern Syria last week after Trump announced the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops. Since the invasion, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions against Turkey and called for a cease-fire, a proposal Erdogan has rebuffed.
Trump on Wednesday said sanctions are more effective than troops in maintaining stability, and added that there were just 28 American troops in the region before he announced his planned withdrawal.
“Sanctions work frankly better than fighting, certainly when you’re down to 28 people,” Trump said. “We’re not going to be fighting, we didn’t want to fight anyways, I didn’t think there was any reason to from the United States perspective.”
The president also said he was “confident” that American nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey were secure, amid reports the country was considering a plan to remove the weapons from the facility.
“It’s a large powerful air base,” Trump said.
(Updates with Trump clash with Democrats starting in tenth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis.
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