U.S. Lindsey Graham was at a lunch meeting Wednesday when President Donald Trump said at a televised press conference that Graham should stay out of discussions regarding American troop withdrawal from Syria and stick to matters of the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs.
Later informed by reporters about the remarks, the South Carolina Republican slowed his stride and delivered, in personal terms, one of his harshest rebukes to the president to date.
“With all due respect for the president, I think I’m elected to have a say about our national security,” Graham said. “I will not be quiet. I will do everything I can to help the president get to a good spot, but if we do not leave some residual forces behind to partner with the Kurds, ISIS will come back, it will put our nation at risk, we will have been seen as dishonorable in the eyes of all future allies.”
Graham called Trump’s decision “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”
“The most damaging thing a president can do to a soldier is to give back to the enemy the land they took through blood.”
Graham was responding to Trump’s recent announcement he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, which has led to the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds — allies in the fight against the radical Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS.
Trump’s decision has drawn immediate and broad criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Though Trump had pacified some Republican critics by saying he would sign a sanctions bill against Turkey — which reportedly initiated air strikes on the Kurds after the president’s announcement troops would withdraw from the region — Trump on Wednesday suggested the Kurdish plight should not be the United States’ responsibility.
Asked whether he thought Trump was still fit to hold office, Graham said, “Nobody asked me if Obama was fit to be president when he got out of Iraq and unleashed the forces of hell. I said about Obama what I’m saying now about Trump, and it’s for the people to judge. I think this is a mistake worse than what Obama did.”
The two men have become allies over the last two years, with Graham emerging as among the president’s staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill, particularly amid the congressional Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
It seems likely they will be able to overcome their differences now — they have done it before, on multiple occasions.
And in fact, hours after Trump gave his press conference at the White House and Graham spoke with reporters at the Capitol, the senator was the special guest at a meeting of U.S. House Republicans to plot their strategy to protect the president during a likely congressional impeachment trial.
Yet Graham struck an ominous tone when asked whether Trump’s decision in Syria would effect their working relationship going forward.
“I really don’t care right now,” Graham said. “I care more about our national security.”
When pressed to explain why he endeared himself to Trump after so famously trashing him during the 2016 campaign, Graham has always answered with ease.
He wanted to be helpful and influence the president — to “be relevant,” in Graham’s own words.
Over the past week, he has begun to see the extent of his influence might be finite.
First, Trump moved ahead with his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria — a move Graham has threatened could be the biggest mistake of his presidency since last December, when Trump first broached the idea.
Their disagreement came to a head on Wednesday, when Trump announced at a press conference alongside the president of Italy that Graham should stay in his lane and not interfere in foreign policy, which Graham has made a centerpiece of his portfolio over more than two decades in elected office.
“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers and fighting other people’s wars. I want to get out of the Middle East,” Trump told a reporter when prompted to respond to Graham’s criticisms. “I think Lindsey should focus right now on judiciary.”
Specifically, Trump said, Graham should investigate the circumstances surrounding the 2016 election and whether the Obama-era justice department made efforts to skew the results toward Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“That’s what Lindsey ought to focus on,” Trump insisted. “The people of South Carolina don’t want us to get into a war with Turkey, a NATO member, or with Syria. Let them fight their own wars ... The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home, and I won an election based on that and that’s the way it is.”
Graham, who actually has expressed a desire to investigate some of the Obama administration’s actions surrounding the 2016 election on multiple occasions, bristled at the suggestion he was not qualified to speak about foreign policy.
“I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan 56 times,” Graham, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who traveled the world with the late-U.S. Sen. John McCain and is considered an expert in international affairs, told reporters. “I have done my homework and here is what I would tell the president: ‘You are doing this against sound military advice. Forget about me. Listen to your own people. You’re not.’”
On Thursday, Graham and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., plan to hold a press conference to introduce their resolution to impose harsh sanctions on Turkey. It’s not clear what, at this point, Trump would be willing to sign into law.