Graham, Trump go to war over Syrian troop withdrawal

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

Sen. Lindsey Graham Thursday introduced a formal congressional resolution Thursday “expressing the sense of the Senate” that the United States should maintain “its limited military activities” in Syria.

Meanwhile, his own war with President Donald Trump was escalating.

Graham’s resolution, a direct rebuke to Trump’s Wednesday announcement that he would withdraw American troops from Syria, would not have the force of law behind it, and it won’t get a vote this year.

Still, Trump fired back at Graham in a tweet, the first time in over a year the president has publicly attacked his now-loyal ally.

“So hard to believe that Lindsey Graham would be against saving soldier lives & billions of $$$. Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran & other locals? Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!” Trump tweeted.

“I have tried to help President Trump where I can,” Graham said on Thursday. “But I find myself in the situation where the best way I can help the president is to tell him the truth as I see it.

The Syria resolution is the second that Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has offered in the past month that would directly contradict Trump on a foreign policy matter.

The senator also wants colleagues to vote on a resolution expressing a sense of the Senate that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump has dismissed intelligence reports that the prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was complicit in Khashoggi’s killing.

Graham told McClatchy he had not spoken to Trump directly but would continue to communicate with him in other ways sure to reach the president — with television appearances and on Twitter.

Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS, who they hate, without us.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, though praised the move, calling Trump’s decision “correct.” Speaking at his annual end of the year press conference, Putin said, “I agree with the U.S. president, we have made significant progress in fighting terrorism on that territory and dealt serious blows to (ISIS) in Syria.”

Graham had his own tweet in response: “It is not FAKE NEWS that Russia, Iran, and (Syrian president Bashir al-)Assad are unhappy about our decision to withdraw from Syria. They are ECSTATIC!”

“I’m not going to let this go,” Graham warned in a brief interview with McClatchy.

He did, however, choose his words carefully when criticizing Trump at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday.

“I’m not questioning his motivations,” Graham said. “I’m questioning his judgment.”

The senator said that over the past 24 hours he had spoken to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Both cabinet officials, Graham said, emphasized that the national security community and Trump’s own advisers cautioned the president against the decision to leave Syria.

A victory has not been achieved, Mattis and Pompeo said. They warned that Trump’s action 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.

“I don’t know how this decision was made,” Graham said Thursday. “It literally came out of left field. It has rattled the world.”

Graham would not entertain suggestions that Trump was motivated by Russia or Turkey, who have some interest in seeing the U.S. military withdraw from the region — “I’m not going there,” he said — but instead suggested that Trump was simply expressing a non-interventionist philosophy.

And he could have been attempting to fulfill a campaign promise to take U.S. troops out of Syria, where they have been stationed since 2014.

But Trump’s decision would be viewed by the world, Graham said, as one “not based on sound military advice,” but “a decision based on frustration.”

Graham was joined at the press conference by Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrats on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, respectively.