WASHINGTON — President Trump faced off against both parties in Congress on Wednesday in an extraordinary confrontation over his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies as the vast majority of House Republicans joined Democrats to
condemn his policy in an overwhelming vote.
Mr. Trump found himself increasingly isolated after withdrawing troops from Syria and clearing the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurds who had fought alongside the United States. The president all but washed his hands of the conflict, saying that it “has nothing to do with us,” generating withering criticism from Republicans and leading to a stormy clash with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Bereft of supporters and under pressure from an impeachment inquiry, Mr. Trump spent much of the day defending his decision and lashing out against rivals. He dismissed the Kurds, who until last week shared outposts with American soldiers, saying they were “no angels” and fought for money. And he berated Ms. Pelosi as a “third-grade politician” or “third-rate politician,” depending on the version, prompting Democrats to walk out of a White House meeting.
“I think now we have to pray for his health,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters afterward. “This was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.” She said Mr. Trump seemed “very shaken up” by the cascade of criticism.
Mr. Trump said it was the other way around. “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast!”
he wrote on Twitter. “She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!”
The collision in the Cabinet Room came shortly after the
House voted 354 to 60 for a nonbinding resolution expressing opposition to Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds, a measure that drew support from two-thirds of the House Republican caucus and all three of its top leaders. Senate Republicans spoke out individually on Wednesday, warning that Mr. Trump was courting “disaster,” as one put it.
The fireworks erupted as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the president’s
new national security adviser, left for Turkey in an effort to persuade President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to agree to a cease-fire in Syria.
But Mr. Trump’s commitment to that diplomacy seemed in doubt as he declared that the United States had no real interest in the matter. “That has nothing to do with us,” he said. He said he could understand if Syria and Turkey want territory. “But what does that have to do with the United States of America if they’re fighting over Syria’s land?” he asked.
Mr. Trump dismissed concerns that his decision to pull back had
opened the way for Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State to move into the abandoned territory and reassert influence in the area. “I wish them all a lot of luck,” Mr. Trump said of the Russians and Syrians. “If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them,” he added.
Mr. Trump’s approach upended decades of American policy in the Middle East, a region presidents of both parties have considered vital to the United States. While many presidents have been reluctant to commit troops to conflicts there, they rarely brushed off the importance of the region’s disputes so dismissively nor accepted the influence of Russia or other hostile players so readily.
But Mr. Trump argued that he ran for president on a platform of ending “endless wars,” a pledge that resonated with many Americans tired of nearly two decades of overseas military operations. “Let them fight their own wars,” he said on Wednesday. “They’ve been fighting for 1,000 years. Let them fight their own wars.”
Critics in both parties denounced the president’s decision. 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, Republican of Utah, 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, Republican of South Carolina, normally among his closest allies but one of the sharpest opponents of his Syria decision.
“I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t reemerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision,”
Mr. Graham wrote on Twitter.
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.”
The president pushed back against Mr. Graham later in the day, saying that the senator should be focusing on investigating Mr. Trump’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.
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,” he told reporters who relayed Mr. Trump’s remarks. “I will not ever be quiet about matters of national security.”
Mr. Trump had little patience for Ms. Pelosi when she and other congressional leaders of both parties arrived at the White House for a briefing on the fighting. It was the first time the president had been in the same room with her since she declared the opening of an impeachment inquiry last month and while the topic did not come up, the room crackled with friction.
When Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, cited Mr. Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, on Syria, the president cut him off. Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, was “the world’s most overrated general,” Mr. Trump said, according to a Democratic account of the exchange.
“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.”
According to the Democratic account, Ms. Pelosi at one point noted that President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia has always wanted a “foothold in the Middle East” and now has one.
“All roads with you lead to Putin,” she told Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump suggested that the Democrats liked the Kurds in part because they included some communists. He lashed out at Ms. Pelosi. “In my opinion, you are a third-grade politician,” he told her, according to the speaker. (Mr. Schumer and the White House both recalled the insult as “third-rate politician.”)
When Ms. Pelosi and Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, stood to leave, Mr. Trump called out, “Goodbye, we’ll see you at the polls.”
Particularly angering critics in both parties on Wednesday was Mr. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the Kurdish troops who have been America’s most reliable ally against the Islamic State. Seven times during two public appearances on Wednesday, Mr. Trump used some variation of the phrase “no angels” to describe the Kurds and suggested they fought out of their own financial interest.
“We’re making the Kurds look like they’re angels,” he said at one point. “We paid a lot of money to the Kurds. Tremendous amounts of money. We’ve given them massive fortunes.”
Echoing Mr. Erdogan’s talking points, the president compared one faction of the Kurds to the Islamic State and asserted that Kurds intentionally freed some Islamic State prisoners to create a backlash for Mr. Trump. “Probably the Kurds let go to make a little bit stronger political impact,” he said.
But he denied that he gave Mr. Erdogan a green light for the incursion when he agreed to remove several dozen troops from the border who had effectively served as a trip wire deterring any Turkish operation. To prove his point, he cited a letter he wrote the Turkish president last week.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Mr. Trump said in the Oct. 9 letter to Mr. Erdogan, which was obtained by Fox Business Network 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.”
Even as he discussed the conflict, Mr. Trump effectively confirmed the presence of 50 nuclear weapons at the Incirlik air base in Turkey, violating the longstanding tradition of not publicly acknowledging where such arms are. “We’re confident, and we have a great air base there, a very powerful air base,” he said when asked by a reporter if he was certain about the security of the weapons.
Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that the first several dozen American military forces had left northern Syria, the start of a withdrawal that will ultimately pull out nearly 1,000 troops in the coming weeks.
After the troops had left a base near Kobani, Syria, two F-15E attack planes carried out a preplanned airstrike to destroy an ammunition cache and reduce the facility’s military usefulness, according to Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the American-led coalition in Baghdad.
Even as the president distanced himself from the conflict, Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo embarked on their mission to Ankara. “We need them to stand down, we need a cease-fire, 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. “Our goal isn’t to break the relationship,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It is to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behavior.”
But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned that the United States could impose more severe sanctions on Turkey if a cease-fire did not occur, possibly targeting more Turkish ministers, ministries or sectors.
Robert S. Ford, the last American ambassador in Syria before the civil war forced the closing of the United States Embassy in 2012, said Mr. Trump had understandable goals but had mishandled how he pursued them.
“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. “At this late stage," Mr. Ford said, “it is not clear what the administration can hope to salvage.”
Emily Cochrane, Lara Jakes, Annie Karni, Alan Rappeport, Katie Rogers, David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
Correction: Oct. 16, 2019
An earlier version of this article misquoted President Trump. He said, referring to Syria, "They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at a border. It's not our border." He did not say "it's not our problem."
Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last four presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He also is the author of five books, most recently “Impeachment: An American History.”
Catie Edmondson is a reporter in the Washington bureau, covering Congress.