President Donald Trump made it clear Tuesday he’s sticking to his campaign promise to make sure “great nations do not fight endless wars” — yet hours earlier, Mitch McConnell led the effort to put the Senate on record opposing Trump’s plan to pull U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
McConnell, who had applauded Trump and several times stood for ovations, sat motionless, his hands in his lap, as Trump made his statement about wars during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
“It was a great speech,” McConnell said in a statement after the speech. He praised Trump’s comments on the economy and border security, but made no mention of war strategy.
Earlier in the day, McConnell, R-Kentucky, championed a provision that seeks to put the brakes on what the senator regards as a too-hasty departure from either war theater. It cleared the Senate as part of a larger package, 77 to 23.
McConnell, who generally sides with Trump, called the amendment an “opportunity for senators to go on the record about what the United States should be doing in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Trump said Tuesday that the U.S. has taken nearly all of ISIS’s territory in Iraq and Syria and that “as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
He said he’s also accelerated negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan.
“Our troops have fought with unmatched valor — and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a political solution to this long and bloody conflict,” he said.
McConnell, though, emphasized in speeches on the Senate floor that he believed his proposal would serve as a caution flag, saying last month that the U.S. has “seen the costs of a precipitous withdrawal before in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, we have seen the downsides of telling the enemy they can just wait us out.”
The division over foreign entanglements marks the sharpest schism yet between Trump and the Republican-led Senate, which has generally backed the president, even as he has tested its patience with intemperate tweets and his insistence on a border wall with Mexico that sparked a 35-day government shutdown.
McConnell said his troop amendment would “urge continued commitment from the U.S. military and our partners until we have set the conditions for the enduring defeat of these vile terrorists.”
The amendment calls on the administration to certify that conditions have been met for the defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS “before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan.”
McConnell has said his initiative follows the thinking of military and intelligence officials about the threat posed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Afghanistan.
“While it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” he cautioned on the Senate floor. “We know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
McConnell’s measure warns that a “precipitous withdrawal” without other efforts to secure gains in Syria and Afghanistan “could allow terrorists to regroup, destabilize critical regions, and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia, to the detriment of United States interests and those of our allies.”
Trump announced in a December Twitter post that the U.S. would withdraw American military personnel from Syria, contending that “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”
The declaration sparked dismay from Republican hawks and helped lead to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, hailed Trump’s decision Monday and denounced McConnell’s resolution as the product of a “war caucus” that is enabling never-ending conflict.
Paul found some like-minded senators. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said Tuesday that he voted against McConnell’s amendment because he was uncertain about the correct course of action. He said he’s asked McConnell for a classified briefing with proponents and opponents of a U.S. withdrawal.
“We have received such conflicting information,” Kennedy said on the Senate floor. “I’m not saying Senator McConnell is wrong, I’m just not sure he’s right.”
McConnell rejected Trump’s assertion that the U.S. has been involved in “endless wars” in a Fox News interview prior to the president’s address.
“Sometimes American presence overseas in troubled areas .. is very important,” McConnell said, contending that former President Barack Obama’s decision to leave Iraq led to the rise of ISIS. “I don’t think we’ve been involved in endless wars. We’re there because they attacked us on 9-11 and we’re trying to prevent that again.”
He also rejected Trump’s critique — which Trump repeated at the State of the Union — that the intervention is too costly.
“In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives,” Trump said. “More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.”
But, McConnell told Fox to “remember the carnage associated with 9/11. How much did that cost, the aftermath of that? Not only in lives but in costs – financial costs and rebuilding,” he said. “Look, we can fight them over there or we can fight them here. I prefer over there.”
McConnell in his Fox News interview suggested one other area of disagreement. He made it plain he’s still interested in having Secretary of State Mike Pompeo run for Senate to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. His remarks came as Trump on Sunday tried to suggest McConnell’s interest was “fake news” and that Pompeo was “absolutely not leaving” to run for Senate.
“At some point, he might decide he wants a different job and I wanted him to know we’d all be behind him if he did,” McConnell told Fox.