President Trump on Monday dug in on his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria as Turkey prepares an operation in the region, while members of his own party lined up to criticise the move.
Speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Trump said he has “great respect” for the prominent Republicans who are urging him to reconsider his strategy but that “it’s time to come back home.”
“We’ve been there for many, many, many years beyond what we were supposed to be. Not fighting. Just there. Just there. And it’s time to come back home,” Trump said in his first public remarks since the shift was announced late Sunday.
“But I can understand the other side of it,” he continued. “But if you go by the other side, that means we should never, ever come home.”
The president lamented that the most difficult aspect of his job is writing letters to the families of soldiers killed overseas. He described writing to families of soldiers killed by mines or snipers, calling it “devastating.”
“We’re willing to do what we have to do, but there has to be an endgame,” he said. “And if you stay, it’s going to be the same thing. Eventually you’re going to have to leave.”
The White House announced late Sunday that Turkey will soon be launching a military operation in northern Syria and that U.S. troops will no longer be “in the immediate area” when it happens. The U.S. had more than 1,000 troops deployed in northern Syria, working closely with Kurdish-led forces that Turkey considers terrorists.
Asked Monday if he consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the decision, Trump claimed that he had. “I consulted with everybody,” he said. “I always consult with everybody.”
But there appeared to be disunity in the administration and the GOP in the aftermath of the White House announcement.
Shortly after Trump spoke, a senior administration official told reporters in a phone briefing that the shift in strategy did not constitute a withdrawal and that the impacted troops — approximately 50 to 100 special operators in the region — would merely be relocated to other bases in the region.
The official also pushed back on any notion that Trump had given a “green light” to Turkey to conduct the operation.
“There was a headline in The New York Times today that the president endorsed the operation in northern Syria,” the official said. “We made it very clear that we did not endorse and do not endorse an operation in northern Syria.”
The Pentagon had issued a statement earlier Monday indicating it did not approve of any Turkish offensive, while Republican lawmakers appeared to have been left in the dark on Trump’s thinking and lined up to criticize the strategy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it a “disaster in the making” and promised a Senate resolution opposing it. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) described the move as a “betrayal.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) lamented the move as a “grave mistake,” and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called it “terribly unwise.”
Some senators publicly urged Trump to reverse course, while Graham prepared a resolution to voice the Senate’s disapproval.
Trump was asked Monday afternoon about the barrage of criticism that rolled in throughout the day from the likes of Graham, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, all of whom argued a U.S. retreat could harm relationships with allies and lay the foundation for a resurgence of ISIS.
He replied that “many people” strongly agree with his viewpoint. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been among his most vocal cheerleaders, though most Republicans have called on Trump to rethink the move.
“I respect both opinions,” he said. “The problem with the other opinion is when do we leave? When do we leave? We’re going to stay there forever?” Trump also insisted he wasn’t “siding with anybody” with the decision.
Asked about the Kurdish fighters, thousands of whom have died fighting alongside U.S. forces in the region and the remainder of whom would be vulnerable without U.S. support, Trump described them as a “natural enemy” of Turkey before arguing against prolonged American involvement.
Trump had doubled down and defended his strategy throughout the day. In tweets and comments in the Roosevelt Room, he chiefly argued that he campaigned on a pledge to end U.S. involvement in “endless wars” and that American forces should not serve as a global police force.
He insisted that, if needed, he can act to cripple the Turkish economy or that the U.S. forces can return to the area, though he has not specified under what conditions those things would happen.