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At a time when Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided over impeachment, President Donald Trump is uniting Congress — in condemnation of his Syria policies.
Prominent lawmakers in both parties admonished the White House on Monday for its controversial decision to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria and potentially wipe out U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters, with Republican hawks and moderates joining with Democrats to blast the move.
“This is a terribly unwise decision by the president to abandon our Kurdish allies, who have been our major partner in the fight against the lslamic State,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told POLITICO. Frequent Trump critic Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also denounced the maneuver as “a betrayal” which communicates to allies abroad that the U.S. is an unreliable partner. And Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned the administration's “bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children.”
In a rare public break with the president, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticized the partial pullout on "Fox & Friends," saying the "impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we've made [and] thrown the region into further chaos." He added: “I hope I'm making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is in my view.”
Graham, a vocal defender of the president and frequent adviser on matters of foreign policy, predicted the administration's move would ensure a “comeback” of ISIS, force the Kurds to align themselves with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran, damage the relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and Congress, and become “a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.”
He also threatened to introduce a Senate resolution opposing the administration's decision, and accused the White House of being dishonest about the nature of the ISIS threat.
“I don’t know all the details regarding President Trump’s decision in northern Syria,” Graham tweeted, adding that he was in the process of scheduling a phone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and warning: “If press reports are accurate, this is a disaster in the making.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both blasted the dramatic policy shift in afternoon statements, with Pelosi urging Trump to “reverse this dangerous decision” and McConnell advising the president to “exercise American leadership.”
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” and would “increase the risk” of reorganization by ISIS and other terrorist groups, the Senate leader said.
The bipartisan backlash comes as Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats over his attempt to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Republicans have largely supported the president as Democratic lawmakers have launched proceedings to remove him from office. Yet the White House’s Syria announcement creates a rift between Trump and the GOP at a time when he needs as much party unity as possible.
Trump sought to quell dissent later Monday, tweeting that he was elected to end America’s “endless wars” and threatening Turkey. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” he wrote online.
At a trade event at the White House later Monday, Trump went into further detail, launching into an eight-minute monologue defending his decision.
“I‘m not siding with anybody,“ he replied when asked why he was siding with “an authoritarian leader and not our Kurdish allies.“
He sought to pin the conflict on former President Barack Obama, repeating his warning to Turkey about harming U.S. troops, calling for greater involvement by nations “in the neighborhood“ of Syria and contending that the remaining conflict amounted to “tribal wars“ that he didn‘t want to interject the U.S. into.
To his critics, the president said he could understand both sides of the coin. He denied reports that he made the withdrawal decision without consulting Pentagon leaders, sayingg that “I always consult with everybody.“
“I can also name many more than you just named of people that totally are supportive. You see the names coming out. People are extremely thrilled,“ he said, though he did not provide any of those names.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another hawkish lawmaker respected within the GOP for his foreign policy outlook, also castigated the White House's action and cautioned that it would encourage Iran amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic.
“If reports about US retreat in #Syria are accurate, the Trump administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria,” he tweeted. “It would confirm #Iran’s view of this administration & embolden then to escalate hostile attacks which in turn could trigger much broader & more dangerous regional war.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a statement that Trump's directive could produce war between Turkish and Kurdish forces, “poses a significant threat” to America's national security and “risks reversing the progress made in the region to destroy ISIS.” The president, Toomey implored, “should rethink this decision immediately.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, called the move “a catastrophic mistake,” tweeting: “This decision ignores lesson of 9/11. Terrorists thousands of miles away can and will use their safe-havens to launch attacks against America.”
Nikki Haley, Trump's former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a rebuke, as well.
“We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back,” she tweeted. “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend.”
Trump had at least one defender Monday. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who consistently argues against U.S. military intervention, tweeted that he supports the president “as he once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy.”
The White House announced Turkey's planned invasion in a statement late Sunday that seemed to indicate at least tacit American support. The statement said Trump spoke by phone with Erdogan about the military incursion, which the administration referred to as a “long-planned operation” without elaborating on the scope of the attack.
The White House also used its statement over the weekend to ding America's European allies.
“The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” it said. “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.”
Turkey has been a U.S. ally in efforts to battle ISIS in the region — Syria being the location of much of the fighting because of the horrific chaos of its ongoing civil war — but there are complications to the alliance.
Kurdish soldiers had also been working with American forces in Syria, but Turkey regards those forces as its enemy. The Kurdish forces, which have been fighting for an independent homeland for Kurds, could be in serious jeopardy when Turkish troops sweep into the area.
Erdogan, who is set to meet with Trump in Washington in the coming weeks, has expressed displeasure with the support the U.S. has given those Kurdish forces.
The president's eagerness for a hasty military withdrawal from Syria has long infuriated Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as some senior members of his own administration; former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in December after Trump ordered all American troops to be pulled out of the West Asian country.
Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy overseeing the effort to defeat ISIS, stepped down days after Mattis announced his departure, and excoriated the president on Twitter early Monday morning.
“Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief,” McGurk wrote. “He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”
Even lawmakers who don’t hold hawkish national security views ripped Trump for the decision. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who voted against authorizing the use of force in Syria in 2013, upbraided the president, tweeting that “a total lack of foreign policy imagination created this crisis.”
“Trump wasted the last 30 months. Could have flooded northern Syria w political/diplomatic resources to find a governance structure that both Kurds/Turks could accept,” he wrote online. “Instead, Washington spent the last 2 years squabbling over 2000 or 500 troops in Syria, when the number of troops had almost no bearing on the future of northern Syria.”
But Trump maintained that he was merely fulfilling a campaign promise, telling reporters Monday afternoon that he didn‘t want anything to happen to the remaining U.S. troops in the region. He got personal at one point, explaining that signing letters to the parents of fallen soldiers was “the hardest thing I have to do in this job.“
“I hate it. I hate it,“ he said, briefly pivoting to attack the leaders of the impeachment inquiry before returning to his original point. “But you know, we have to do the right thing for our country — whatever it may be — and I just think that‘s the right thing. I respect both opinions. The problem with the other opinion is, when do we leave? When do we leave? Are we going to stay there forever?“
Burgess Everett, Caitlin Oprysko and David Cohen contributed to this story.