WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump found himself increasingly isolated Wednesday as members of his own party decried the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria – a move that cleared the way for a Turkish invasion – and top administration officials set off for an uncertain diplomatic mission to Ankara to negotiate a cease-fire.
Democratic leaders stormed out of a White House meeting intended to craft a joint response to the international crisis following what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called “a meltdown” by the president that included insulting Pelosi as “a third-rate politician,” according to other Democratic leaders in the room.
“This was not a dialogue. It was sort of a diatribe. A nasty diatribe,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
The meeting was Trump’s first face-to-face engagement with top Democrats since Pelosi launched an impeachment inquiry last month, though the speaker said impeachment was not discussed. The abrupt ending to the meeting suggested even an international crisis will not be enough to prompt cooperation between Trump and the Democratic-led House.
Earlier in the day, even as Republicans joined in a House resolution condemning Trump’s withdrawal, the president offered a glib assessment of the United States’ one-time allies in the region, the Kurds, who are facing atrocities and the loss of limited autonomy that American troops had helped secure before Trump ordered the hasty withdrawal earlier this month.
“They’re no angels,” Trump said while meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House.
“It’s not our border,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. There’s a lot of sand they can play with.” He also asserted that the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, was worse than Islamic State militants.
Other American leaders disagreed, fearing a cascade of consequences from the withdrawal, including threats to remaining U.S. soldiers’ safety, the loss of American credibility in the region, an emboldened Russia and the escape of Islamic State militants in the chaos, which has already begun.
“I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been a close ally of Trump’s. “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking.”
Trump dismissed the criticism, saying Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and will play a key role in the impeachment process, would prefer to keep U.S. troops in the Middle East indefinitely.
“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers, and fighting other peoples’ wars. I wanna get out of the Middle East. I think Lindsey should focus right now on Judiciary.”
Graham would not be silenced. “With all due respect to the president, I think I’m elected to have a say about our national security, that in my view what is unfolding in Syrian is going to be a disaster. I hope I’m wrong. I will not be quiet.”
Other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah, have called the U.S. withdrawal a “mistake.” McConnell, who opened his weekly news conference expressing his gratitude to the Kurds, noted that the previous status quo with about 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria had been keeping the peace.
“As messy as Syria was, this was working pretty well,” McConnell said. “A mere 1,000 troops was keeping the Russians out, the Iranians out, ISIS bad guys in jail, and the Kurds did the heavy lifting.”
Shortly before top congressional leaders were scheduled to discuss Syria at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, the House passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the president’s decision, calling on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw and urging the Trump administration to continue supporting the Kurds.
The measure passed 354-60, with strong Republican support, a rarity in the House, where GOP members are usually strongly loyal to Trump.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the highest ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he understands the administration’s desire to remove troops from the region, but said he is “concerned about the extreme long-term damage” of the decision.
“Leaving northwest Syria now does not resolve the problem that brought us there in the first place,” McCaul said.
On Thursday, Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are scheduled to introduce legislation to sanction Turkey’s political and military leaders and block Turkey from purchasing U.S. military supplies or ammunition. On Wednesday the No. 3 Republican in the House Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and 90 other Republicans filed companion legislation sanctioning Turkey.
As the division in Trump’s party festered, the administration was also sending contradictory messages.
Vice President Mike Pence set off on a diplomatic mission to Turkey, but Erdogan, who has been known to renege on meetings, sent mixed signals about whether he would meet with the vice president. Trump later announced the Turkish leader had agreed to meet Pence, who is traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The potential for a diplomatic slight compounded challenges for a trip that is already fraught. Trump had appeared to give Erdogan a green light to invade Kurdish territory, a long-standing goal for Turkey. But the U.S. administration has since imposed sanctions and now claims, at least in some statements, that Pence will press Erdogan to pull back.
Trump now denies he ever approved of Turkey’s incursion, despite a White House statement issued in advance that announced the Turkish military operation was imminent and the U.S. was leaving the area. Trump said again on Wednesday that he expected Turkey to invade, given their desire to create a buffer against the Kurds.
On Monday, Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin asserted that Trump favored a cease-fire. But the president himself has been vague on his goals, even as Turkish troops continue to kill and displace Kurds, and Russians and Syrians make their own incursions into northern Syria.
Erdogan has so far made clear that he does not intend to halt his offensive.
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