U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to wash his hands of the conflict between Turkey and the United States’ Kurdish allies in Syria on Wednesday, generating withering criticism from Republican allies, who rebuked him in a House vote. The day ended with a heated confrontation between Mr. Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office.
Mr. Trump told reporters that the Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria that began after he pulled out U.S. troops “has nothing to do with us.” He declared that the Kurds who battled the Islamic State alongside U.S. forces for years were “not angels,” but instead essentially self-interested mercenaries who fought because they were paid to.
The President’s comments triggered a strong rebuttal from fellow Republicans who accused him of abandoning friends of the United States and jeopardizing America’s leadership in the region. Mr. Trump then engaged in a sharp exchange at the White House with Democratic congressional leaders, who walked out of a meeting, complaining that he had been more offensive to them than any President in modern times.
During the meeting, according to Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Trump berated her as “a third-grade politician” and suggesting that she would be happy if communists gained influence in the Middle East. Ms. Pelosi told reporters on the White House driveway afterward that the President seemed “very shaken up” and was having “a meltdown.”
Mr. Trump also dismissed his own former defence secretary, Jim Mattis, who resigned last year when the President first tried to withdraw troops from Syria. When Senator Chuck Schumer of New York State, the Democratic leader, began to cite Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, the President interjected, calling him “the world’s most overrated general,” according to a Democrat briefed on the meeting.
“You know why?” Mr. Trump said. “He wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month.”
The confrontation with the Democrats came after a series of public appearances where the President attempted to justify his decision to withdraw a small number of U.S. troops from the border who had been serving as a kind of trip wire deterring Turkey from attacking Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The decision to pull out the troops was seen as an implicit green light to Turkey, which then launched a powerful offensive against the Kurds.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office alongside the visiting President of Italy, Mr. Trump said that the U.S. soldiers he had ordered to pull back were no longer in harm’s way and that “they shouldn’t be as two countries fight over land.”
“That has nothing to do with us,” Mr. Trump said, all but dismissing the Kurdish fighters. “The Kurds know how to fight, and, as I said, they’re not angels, they’re not angels,” he said.
But the President denied that he gave a green light to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during a phone call last week, citing a letter that he wrote a few days afterward.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Mr. Trump said in the letter, which was dated Oct. 9 and obtained by Fox News on Wednesday and confirmed by a White House official. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”
The President’s comments in the Oval Office and again during a later news conference in the East Room came as Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert O’Brien, the President’s new national security adviser, were preparing to fly to Turkey in a bid to persuade Mr. Erdogan to pull back his offensive.
Republicans and Democrats alike have denounced the President for abandoning the Kurds, who now are fighting Turkish forces in a chaotic battlefield that also has put at risk U.S. troops pulling back from the Syrian border with Turkey. Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the small U.S. force from the border, where they had served as a kind of trip wire deterring Turkish aggression, has been widely criticized as a signal permitting Turkey to launch its offensive.
Mr. Trump insisted his handling of the matter had been “strategically brilliant” and minimized concerns for the Kurds, implying that they allied with the United States only out of their own self-interest. “We paid a lot of money for them to fight with us,” he said. Echoing Mr. Erdogan’s talking points, Mr. Trump compared one faction of the Kurds to the Islamic State and he asserted that Kurds intentionally freed some IS prisoners to create a backlash for him. “Probably the Kurds let go to make a little bit stronger political impact,” he said.
Turkey has been upset about the Kurdish presence across the border in Syria for years because the U.S.-backed militia has ties to a Kurdish guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey. Both Turkey and the United States consider it to be a terrorist organization. Turkey fears the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Syria could be used as a base of operations against its territory.
He dismissed concerns that his decision to pull back had opened the way for Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and IS to move into the abandoned territory and reassert their influence in the area.
“I wish them all a lot of luck,” Mr. Trump said of the Russians and Syrians. Warning of a repeat of the disastrous decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan, he added, “If Russia wants to get involved in Syria, that’s really up to them.”
Critics in both parties condemned the president’s approach. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, opened his weekly news conference by expressing his “gratitude to the Kurds,” adding, “I’m sorry that we are where we are.”
Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said that by sending Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo to Turkey, Mr. Trump was trying to fix a problem of his own creation, but too late.
“It’s very hard to understand why it is the Vice-President and Secretary of State and others are going to talk with Erdogan and Turkey,” Mr. Romney told reporters. “It’s like the farmer who lost all his horses and goes to now shut the barn door.”
Mr. Trump got into an extended back and forth with Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, who has been one of the President’s closest allies but emerged as one of the sharpest opponent of his Syria decision. After Trump said the Turkish-Kurdish conflict was of no interest to the United States, Mr. Graham took to Twitter to castigate the President.
“I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkeys invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t re-emerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision,” Mr. Graham wrote.
“However,” he added, “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.”
Mr. Trump pushed back on Mr. Graham during that second meeting with reporters, saying that the South Carolina senator should be focusing on investigating the President’s Democratic opponents, including former president Barack Obama. “The people of South Carolina don’t want us to get into a war with Turkey, a NATO member, or with Syria,” Mr. Trump said. “Let them fight their own wars.”
Mr. Graham then rebutted Mr. Trump again. “With all due respect for the President, I think I’m elected to have a say about our national security that in my view,” he told reporters who relayed Mr. Trump’s remarks. “I will not ever be quiet about matters of national security.”
“And here’s what I would tell the President,” he added. “You’re doing this against sound military advice. Forget about me. Listen to your own. You’re not.”
The President’s isolation on the issue was on display in the East Room when his guest, President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, was far more critical of Turkey’s incursion than Mr. Trump was. While the President said it had nothing to do with the United States, Mr. Mattarella emphasized that “Italy, aligned with the EU’s position, condemns the Turkish operations.”
Even as the President washed his hands of the conflict, his Vice-President and Secretary of State prepared to head to the region to try to stop them from fighting their own wars. Mr. Pompeo said the main goal of meeting with Mr. Erdogan was to secure a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces.
Amid reports that Turkish forces were moving near the Syrian town of Kobani, which has a large Kurdish population, Mr. Pompeo said he was given a commitment by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, that troops would not enter the town.
“We need them to stand down, we need a ceasefire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again,” Mr. Pompeo said on Fox Business Network.
However, he also said the Trump administration did not want to isolate Turkey, a fellow member of NATO – a fine line the U.S. must walk as it issues economic penalties against Mr. Erdogan’s government.
“Our goal isn’t to break the relationship,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It is to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behaviour. The President said this was a bad deal, it was a bad thing; we’re working to stop it.”
Mr. Pence, who has been spending most of his time on domestic travel promoting policies such as the revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada in states being targeted by Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, had scratched all foreign trips from his schedule through the end of the year. The trip to Turkey was unplanned, added at the last minute.
Mr. Pence also has a tense relationship with Mr. Erdogan. He was one of the administration’s leading advocates for the freedom of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who had been detained in Turkey for two years but was freed last fall.
“The President is seeking a ceasefire because he feels that from a humanitarian perspective, this is not good,” said Marc Short, the Vice-President’s chief of staff.
Mr. Short said Mr. Pence had no personal relationship with Mr. Erdogan to lean on, although they had met when Mr. Erdogan visited Washington. Mr. Pence’s trip to Ankara to meet with Mr. Erdogan, he said, was “one in which the imprimatur of the Vice-President is important.”
Former officials described the trip as all risk for Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo and all reward for Mr. Trump. The Vice-President and Secretary of State are now in an awkward position of being sent to stop an invasion after Mr. Trump described it as “not our problem,” while the President looks like he sent a delegation to conduct talks but will ultimately do whatever he wants.
Robert Ford, who was the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Syria before the civil war forced the closing of the U.S. embassy in 2012, said it would be counterproductive to punish Turkey to the point of driving it “further into the arms of Russia.”
He also said the United States should not be beholden to long-term interests of Kurdish fighters to carve out a state in eastern Syria and that the Trump administration “is right to stop the mission creep in U.S. strategy in Syria.”
But given Mr. Erdogan’s widely known interests in invading the Kurdish territory, Mr. Ford said the Trump administration mishandled the delicate diplomacy. He noted that the very day that Mr. Erdogan announced the invasion, Mr. Pompeo was in the region – and could have attempted to head off the military campaign hours earlier with a quick visit to Turkey to meet officials there instead of flying back to Washington.
“The Trump administration is correct to limit our commitment in eastern Syria, but it is very clumsy in managing the policy and the rollout,” said Mr. Ford, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University. The mission by Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo comes a full week after the invasion began. “At this late stage,” Mr. Ford said, “it is not clear what the administration can hope to salvage.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.