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White House struggles to defend Trump's Syria withdrawal plan

Key Points
  • The White House on Wednesday struggled both to rationalize and to defend President Donald Trump's surprise announcement that morning that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria because, as Trump wrote in a tweet, "we have defeated ISIS in Syria."
  • Among those who learned about Trump's decision from reading news reports were top congressional leaders in both parties and senior military brass. In a more traditional administration, these two groups would have almost certainly been consulted ahead of such a momentous military announcement.
  • For Trump, however, the news changed a day of potentially negative stories about him into a day dominated by a new crisis and new questions. 
A US officer, from the US-led coalition, speaks with a fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units near northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on April 25, 2017.
Akram Saleh | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday struggled both to rationalize and to defend President Donald Trump's surprise announcement that morning that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria because, as Trump wrote in a tweet, "we have defeated ISIS in Syria."

But while the announcement contained few answers for the public, Congress or the people likely to be affected by the decision, it did accomplish one thing for the president. It changed the news narrative — from one dominated by stories about Trump's failure to secure the $5 billion he promised to get to build a border wall, to one dominated by coverage of what Trump's Syria decision meant for the U.S. and its allies.

Shortly after Trump's 9:30 a.m. ET tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, "We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign."

Sanders also claimed that after five years, the United States had defeated the Islamic State caliphate. But she added that American "victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign."

While experts widely acknowledge that ISIS has been forced out of much of the territory it initially seized in Syria and Iraq, the timing of Wednesday's announcement caught official Washington completely off guard.

Among those who learned about Trump's decision from reading news reports were top congressional leaders in both parties and senior military brass. In a more traditional administration, these two groups would have almost certainly been consulted ahead of such a momentous military announcement.

And while the Pentagon took pains to downplay the apparent disconnect between the commander in chief and his top generals, on Capitol Hill, members of Congress did not hide their frustration with the White House.

"I've never seen a decision like this since I've been here, in 12 years, where nothing is communicated in advance, and all of a sudden this type of massive decision takes place," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks with reporters ahead of the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 24, 2018. 
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

Once the news broke, however, Trump did nothing to help key stakeholders better understand where he was coming from. On the contrary, Corker went to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting, only to have it cancelled while he was waiting.

Instead, the president deployed several messengers to try to explain his decision, including Vice President Mike Pence, who had been previously scheduled to attend a lunch with senators to discuss how to avert a looming government shutdown.

In the wake of the Syria announcement, however, Pence came to the lunch armed with White House talking points on the decision, which he delivered. Senators who attended the lunch later said it did not go well.

"I felt badly for the vice president because he had talking points and, I mean, um, you know, there's no way he could really defend — he did what a loyal soldier would do, but it was not resonating," Corker told reporters.

Later in the afternoon, the White House scheduled a briefing call for reporters on the Syria decision with a senior administration official.

But instead of shedding light on Trump's process, or his rationale, the official, who was granted anonymity, said only that the decision had been Trump's to make.

The official refused to comment on what they called "the deliberative process" that led to the decision, but pointed out that Trump has long expressed support for ending U.S. engagement in Syria. "He has believed for many years that we do not have a military role to play in Syria," said the official. "I really don't see how this is a surprise."

When asked about National Security Adviser John Bolton's recent pledge that U.S. troops would not leave Syria "as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, " the official struggled to come up with a way to explain the apparent contradiction between Trump's announcement and Bolton's pledge.

"The issue here is that the president has made a decision, so that previous statements, um, he gets to do that, so that's his prerogative," the official said.

And while the aide did not have any figures at hand on the number of troops who have already come home, they did confirm that "the process has begun and the planning is underway."