WASHINGTON — President Trump made a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday, the first time Trump met with American troops in a combat zone. The visit, which was not announced in advance, came against the backdrop of mounting controversies over Trump’s plans to withdraw forces from the Middle East, the ongoing government shutdown, and an apparently coincidental New York Times article that explored the president’s past avoidance of military service.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders revealed the trip on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” Sanders posted.
Wire photos showed Trump and first lady Melania Trump meeting with soldiers and military leaders at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. Trump was joined by national security adviser John Bolton.
Prior to the visit, Trump had faced criticism for breaking with an annual tradition since 2003 of presidents visiting troops deployed abroad around the Christmas holiday.
Trump spoke to members of all five U.S. military branches via a video conference call on Tuesday. While the president has visited with troops in the U.S. multiple times since he took office, this was his first visit to a combat zone. Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors, President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, made it a point to see troops fighting overseas very early in their terms.
Trump’s trip to Iraq came at a turbulent time for his administration, particularly in regard to military policy. Last week, Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans to pull troops out of Afghanistan. Opponents and military analysts worried that the beneficiaries would be jihadis, as well as Russia and Iran, which have aggressively sought to expand their influence in the region. The Syria withdrawal, which Trump announced in a tweet with little or no advance notice or consultation with the Cabinet, led to the abrupt resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Wednesday also marked the fifth day of a government shutdown over a budget dispute between Trump and congressional Democrats.
The president’s visit to Iraq coincided with a New York Times report published Wednesday that detailed new information suggesting Trump was able to avoid the Vietnam draft as a young man thanks to his father’s connections. The paper reported that the daughters of a podiatrist in New York who is now dead said their father had given Trump a bone-spur diagnosis as a favor to Fred Trump, who owned the building where the doctor had his office.
Trump has previously said he had a legitimate bone-spur diagnosis, though he has never provided any documentation.
As with prior presidential trips to war zones, Trump’s Iraq visit was conducted with some secrecy to help ensure his safety. The trip was not announced by the White House, which has not responded to multiple questions from Yahoo News about the visit.
The first indication that Trump was visiting with the troops overseas came Wednesday morning as aviation experts noted interesting activity about a mysterious U.S. government plane. The plane, which was not using the standard Air Force One call sign, was tracked flying from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the typical venue for presidential departures, through the Middle East. Photos showed the aircraft was decked out in the normal presidential insignia.
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