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Trump Vs. Congress On Syria


What exactly does the United States want from Turkey now. Vice President Pence is leading a U.S. delegation visiting Turkey. Secretary of State Pompeo came along and says the U.S. wants one thing, a cease-fire in Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria. But at the White House yesterday, President Trump suggested the United States doesn't care at all.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria's not happy about it. Let them work it out. We shouldn't be over there.

INSKEEP: The president had previously cleared the way for Turkey's invasion by ordering out U.S. troops, but we now know that after clearing the way, he then sent a letter telling Turkey's president, quote, "don't be a fool" and warning against, quote, "slaughtering thousands of people."

A senior adviser to Turkey's president Gulnur Aybet tells NPR today that Turkey disregarded that letter because of its undiplomatic wording.


GULNUR AYBET: The way the letter was worded and what it was expecting us to do to actually, you know, take account of a terrorist leader almost like an equal party to a NATO ally was ridiculous.

INSKEEP: She said Turkey's invasion was the response to that letter. And when she says terrorist groups, she is referring to Syrian Kurds, by the way, who fought alongside the United States against ISIS and died by the thousands in that fight.

NPR White House correspondent Mara Liasson is going to try to sort this out for us. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: The Turkish senior adviser to the president also said that a cease-fire - the U.S. request or demand - is not realistic here, not going to happen, according to them, at the moment. So what does the U.S. delegation want given that?

LIASSON: Well, that's an interesting question 'cause they are over there supposedly to get a cease-fire. But Erdogan recently told the Turkish Parliament that he has no plans to agree to cease fire until Turkey has established control over northern Syria, which is what - exactly what he's doing right now. So it sounds like a cease-fire is not going to happen anytime soon, or at least it'll happen on Erdogan's timetable.

INSKEEP: We just went through some of the contradictory, or seemingly contradictory, moves - confusing moves by the president and the White House. How is the president trying to explain his strategy here, if at all?

LIASSON: Well, you heard him say he wants to get out. He doesn't think this is our problem. He said, I want to pull out of the Middle East. He has even described the Kurds in terms that Erdogan uses. He's described some of the Kurds as terrorists, worse than ISIS. And after he gave the green light to the Turkish invasion, he also is now threatening severe economic sanctions. So it's a contradictory message. And we can play a little bit more of what he said yesterday at the White House.


TRUMP: Syria may have some help with Russia, and that's fine. It's a lot of sand. They've got a lot of sand over there. So there's a lot of sand that they can play with.

LIASSON: So no strategic interest for the U.S. It's just some sandy place in the Middle East. It's pretty clear that in his heart of hearts, Donald Trump is more Rand Paul than Lindsey Graham.

INSKEEP: Although that reference to Russia gets to why a lot of lawmakers, including a lot of lawmakers in the president's own party, are uncomfortable here. This does seem to expand the power of Syria's central government, which is backed by Russia. Is that one of the reasons that Republicans are in a rare instance here, in many cases, criticizing the president?

LIASSON: Absolutely. And Republicans have been very open about this. They say that what the president did emboldened Iran, Russia and Syria. None of them are allies of the United States. They're enemies. And that's why you saw that huge vote in the House of Representatives, 354-60, to condemn the Trump policy on Syria, including members of the House Republican leadership.

Now, it's true that in the past, Republicans in Congress have felt freer to criticize the president and break with the president on foreign policy where they're in - generally in lockstep with him on everything else. But you have seen a pretty ferocious pushback on the president because they are against this move.

INSKEEP: Are there some Republicans who are pushing back on the president on Syria because they're bothered about him on other issues - by him on other issues like Ukraine and impeachment but they can't say that?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's possible that some of the frustration with the president on this issue is a proxy for things that they can't say in other areas, but I think this is sincere disagreement on this issue. And also, they feel freer to criticize him on this because this is something that Trump's base doesn't focus on very much. There are some evangelical leaders, like Pat Robinson (ph), who have - Pat Robertson - who have been very critical of the president's moves in Syria.

But for the most part, I don't think Trump's supporters care much about the Kurds. And foreign policy in the past has been a place where you see Congress pushing back. You saw them with a veto-proof majority pass Russian sanctions. You've seen them pass resolutions supporting NATO when the president seemed to be pulling back from that alliance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.