Lindsey Graham slams Trump for declaring victory over ISIS in Syria

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks to reporters in Washington earlier this month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks to reporters in Washington earlier this month. AP file photo

Sen. Lindsey Graham was furious Wednesday over President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, calling it “a mistake to declare victory” in the war against the terrorist group known as ISIS.

Graham, just returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan, told reporters on Capitol Hill he was “blindsided” by Trump’s tweet claiming the United States had defeated the radical terrorist organization in the region.

Lawmakers, the South Carolina Republican said, now have to “find out what the hell happened.

“I want a hearing. I want oversight,” he said. “This is a Republican president I try to work with and I like him, but he can’t be immune to oversight.

“I would urge my colleagues in the Senate and the House, call people from the administration and explain this policy ... This is the role of the Congress, to make administrations explain their policy, not in a tweet, but before Congress answering questions.”

Graham was not alone in his shock and outrage Wednesday. The outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, both said they were not informed of the decision prior to Trump’s tweet and wanted answers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called troop withdrawal from Syria a “grave error.”

Senate Republicans confronted Vice President Mike Pence during a policy lunch at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. Later, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that it was “(Trump’s) prerogative” to withdraw all 2,000 troops from Syria, even if that decision conflicted with explicit advice from the Pentagon not to proceed.

Trump’s national security advisers warned that the move could be seen as a breach of trust with the Kurdish allies who have been fighting alongside U.S. troops in Syria against ISIS, which still poses a threat on the ground.

By Wednesday evening, Graham indicated he was working on introducing a resolution that would push back against the decision. Later that night, in Senate’s final hours of the legislative session, he spoke at length about the troop withdrawal and pledged he would make the president “own” his decision. Graham and five of his colleagues, including Rubio, also sent Trump a letter asking that he reconsider.

Graham’s response has been so notable because he has emerged as one of Trump’s strongest Senate allies, and his comments Wednesday were a reminder that issues remain where he will break with the president — and won’t hesitate to let the media know.

His public break from Trump was triggered Wednesday morning when the president tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a statement shortly thereafter explaining that “victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign” against terrorist threats.

Graham told reporters that he was “incredibly alarmed” when he saw Trump’s tweets and compared the move to President Barack Obama’s decision years earlier to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Obama’s actions, Graham argued, created an environment in which ISIS could thrive. The same thing would happen in Syria.

“I think it’s a mistake to declare victory, and if you don’t understand how these troops insure ISIS never comes back you’re making a huge mistake,” Graham said. “I don’t think ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, and I know for sure it’s not defeated in Afghanistan.”

A longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls foreign aid, Graham is considered one of Congress’s strongest proponents of U.S. engagement abroad.

The senator is often a proponent of military intervention, and he’s frequently criticized for this hawkish streak by those who see the government as too willing to get involved in — and spend money on — conflicts that are none of its business.

He said Wednesday he and Trump “agree a good bit on foreign policy,” citing as an example the president’s decisions to impose new sanctions on Iran.

Over the past year or more, Graham has established himself as an informal adviser to Trump on national security issues, counseling him over the phone or on the golf course about threats from North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

But Trump sometimes embraces a more libertarian, non-interventionist stance toward foreign policy. That aligns him more with another ally, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who quickly praised the administration’s Syria troop withdrawal plans.

“He has this attitude that their problems over there are not our problems,” Graham said of Trump on Wednesday. “We’re not the policemen of the world, but we’re the glue that holds the world together. When we left Iraq, how well did Iraq protect the world against the rise of ISIS? So I think he has a view that our presence over there costs too much and is not necessary.”

He had a warning for Trump, however: “The day we withdraw from Syria puts in motion, I think, a lot of bad things in the region that we’ll eventually pay”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.