Washington: House Republicans deserted the United States president to oppose his withdrawal of troops from Syria, a prelude to a rancorous White House meeting with congressional leaders in which the president insulted Democrats before they walked out.
The acrimony came after House Democrats and Republicans voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to oppose Donald Trump’s troop pullout and urge the administration to contain the fallout from Turkey’s incursion into Syria and as top administration officials were set to travel to Turkey for talks Thursday, according to EFE/Dow Jones.
The House measure — which passed by a 354-to-60 vote — was unanimously backed by Democrats. They were joined by 129 Republicans, a rare display of GOP opposition to a stance held by the Republican president on a high-profile matter.
After the vote, congressional leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), met with Trump at the White House. The meeting was brief and contentious, with Trump calling Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and Pelosi later countering that Trump was experiencing a meltdown.
The clash came as administration officials headed to Ankara for meetings with Turkish leaders, a mission clouded with uncertainty after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rebuffed calls for a cease-fire and Trump said the Turkish assault had “nothing to do with us.”
Trump added Wednesday that the Kurds — longtime US allies in the fight against Islamic State but seen by Turkey as terrorists — “are no angels.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who differs with Trump on Syria, wrote in a Twitter message that the president’s remarks “completely undercut Vice President Pence and Sec. Pompeo’s ability to end the conflict.”
In advance of the diplomacy, the White House Wednesday released a brief letter written by Trump to Erdogan in which Trump implored his counterpart in highly colloquial language to be reasonable, urging him: “don’t be a fool.” The letter was sent October 9, days after Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces in the area, clearing the way for the long-threatened incursion by Turkey.
Erdogan’s office didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on whether the Turkish president had received the letter.
Amid the US and international debate, US forces continued moving away from previously occupied Syrian bases, navigating through areas of rival forces. Troops called in an Apache helicopter Tuesday and jet fighters to ward off Turkish-backed irregular forces.
The US military said Wednesday two F-15E jet fighters carried out an airstrike to destroy an ammunition-storage facility, latrines, tents and other parts of the of the Syria headquarters of the American campaign to destroy Islamic State after pulling its forces from the base.
The House vote was the first formal step lawmakers have taken to register their criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops, which was followed by a Turkish military assault against areas controlled by Kurdish forces.The sudden absence of US troops in the region, where Turkey-backed forces are now battling Kurdish fighters, rekindled concerns among US lawmakers about the resurgence of Islamic State and Russian influence in the region. The lawmakers also criticised the move as an abandonment of Kurdish forces.
“The bottom line is the reckless decision of this president sends a very clear message to those friends and to those partners. And that is the American handshake doesn’t matter, that we won’t be there for you when you need us,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D., Colo.), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The resolution also calls on Turkey to halt its military operations. A parallel measure that has been introduced in the Senate also enjoys support from both parties.
McConnell opened his weekly news conference Wednesday with a pointed message of thanks to the Kurds. “I want to express my gratitude to the Kurds. They were great fighters. And we had a terrific alliance with them,” he said.
He added: “I’m sorry that we are where we are.” Still, McConnell didn’t commit to bringing the House resolution to the Senate floor or to holding a vote on sanctions legislation.
Trump has authorised sanctions and raised steel tariffs on Turkey, and some lawmakers are proposing steeper financial penalties on Turkey, a US treaty ally.
Members of both parties blamed Trump for effectively allowing Turkey to begin the military campaign that has created the new chaos in the region.
“Very clearly, it was a decision by the administration that led to what you’re seeing. This is a bit like the farmer locking the barn door after the horse has left,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) said.
The meeting between Pelosi and Trump, their first since the House opened an impeachment inquiry, quickly descended into bickering. Republicans and Democrats said impeachment didn’t come up in the meeting.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused Democrats of coming to the meeting to pick a fight with the president.
“The President was measured, factual and decisive, while Speaker Pelosi’s decision to walk out was baffling, but not surprising,” she said.
As the discussion turned to preventing a resurgence of Islamic State, Trump at one point referred to his former Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, as “the world’s most overrated general,” people familiar with the meeting said.
“He wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month,” the president said, two Democrats familiar with the meeting said.
Pelosi said Democrats touched a nerve when they told him how many Republicans voted for their resolution.
“He just couldn’t handle that, two-to-one, Republicans voted to oppose what he was doing in Syria,” she said, calling the incident a meltdown.
Trump later tweeted a photo of Pelosi standing up at the meeting. “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” he wrote.
Pelosi said Trump called her a “third-grade politician,” while the White House countered that Trump had called her a “third-rate politician.” After Trump repeatedly insulted Pelosi, the speaker and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer left the meeting, the people said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said Pelosi tried to make the meeting unproductive before she stormed out. He didn’t dispute Pelosi’s characterization of Trump’s remarks, saying “sometimes things get a little heated,” but he insisted Pelosi behaved in an “unbecoming” manner.
“They were both very firm and very direct with each other,” a White House official said.
In Ankara, Erdogan Wednesday said Turkish troops would stop the offensive only if the Kurdish militia that Ankara views as a terrorist threat drops the fight and leaves areas it controls along the Turkish-Syrian border by Wednesday night.
On the ground in northeastern Syria, troop movements reflected the fast-changing geopolitical dynamic sparked by Trump’s October 6 order to withdraw US forces.
Erdogan said the Turkish military had pushed more than 20 miles into Syria and taken control of the strategic M4 highway, which runs parallel to the border with Turkey and was one of the main supply lines for Kurdish forces.
Meanwhile, Russian forces filled the void created by departing US troops, notably in the border city of Manbij, were they began patrolling the line between Turkish and Syrian armies.
Highlighting Russia’s growing influence in the region, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had invited Erdogan to Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria. The Turkish president’s office said he will meet his Russian counterpart in Sochi next Tuesday, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.
Trump has invited Erdogan to the US in November. Erdogan’s office has acknowledged the invitation but hasn’t confirmed if he will make the trip.