WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump shared an update Sunday from his defense secretary that outlined “minor skirmishes” between Turkish and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria as U.S. troops make their way out of the area. It might have passed by with little notice in the rushing current of Trump’s Twitter stream, but for one thing.
“Mark Esperanto, Secretary of Defense, ‘The ceasefire is holding up very nicely. There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly,’” Trump wrote on Twitter. “‘New areas being resettled with the Kurds.’ USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!”
Even for Trump, who often lards his online missives with typos, caps-lock abuses, occasional gibberish and errant exclamation points, Sunday’s missive contained an outsize number of errors. The first and most glaring: The president’s defense secretary is actually named Mark Esper.
Questions arose. Was it a typo? How could Trump’s iPhone even make the jump from “Esper” to “Esperanto” if it was an auto-correct situation? It was a mystery that several White House officials could not solve when asked by a reporter Sunday.
The larger problem, of course, is that Trump made a series of false or unsupported statements about a chaotic situation that has unfolded since he stood by as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey advanced his forces into the area. In recent days, the vice president traveled to Turkey to negotiate a brief cease-fire — a nominal sacrifice from Erdogan that the White House has tried to frame as a win.
The quote Trump attributed to Esper could have come from a private conversation between them. But it appeared that it might have been a recounting — if not an entirely faithful one — of public comments made by Esper, who made an unannounced visit to meet with U.S. troops in Afghanistan this weekend and delivered his own assessment of what was happening in Syria.
“I think overall the cease-fire generally seems to be holding,” Esper said, according to a Reuters correspondent traveling with him. “We see a stabilization of the lines, if you will, on the ground, and we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that, that doesn’t surprise me necessarily.”
At the end of the tweet, Trump added two confusing elements of his own. The first was that United States had “secured the Oil,” a claim he has repeatedly made in recent days without any explanation. The White House did not clarify what he meant by those remarks, and Trump has ignored the question when asked about it by reporters. Last year, there were about 2.5 billion barrels of oil in the fields in northern Syria, according to industry estimates.
The president also said that the United States was “bringing soldiers home,” which is also not correct, at least not in the short term: Esper has confirmed that the troops leaving Syria are heading to Iraq, to continue operations against the Islamic State group.
Separately, the Trump administration said this month that it would be committing additional troops to Saudi Arabia, a decision the president has said was made because the Saudis agreed to pay for the operation.
“A very rich country,” Trump said during a news conference with the Italian president last week. “They should be paying. And so should many other countries be paying if they want this kind of protection.”
Hours after the original tweet was posted to the presidential account, the White House tried again, spelling Esper’s name correctly.
Most of the other questionable assertions remained.