White House

Pence and Pompeo in damage control with Christians over Trump’s Kurdish crisis

Christian leaders were blindsided last week by President Donald Trump’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria that left thousands of Kurds vulnerable to attacks. They sought audience with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, the two officials they thought could convince the president to change course.

But both men, evangelical Christians, fell conspicuously silent. They took several days to call members of a politically active Christian community perplexed by a decision that they considered a betrayal of U.S. moral authority.

Kurdish forces have lost 12,000 soldiers on the front lines of a U.S.-led global coalition fight against Islamic State and have protected vulnerable religious minorities across Syria and Iraq.

That act of sacrifice has resonated in churches across the country, transforming what might otherwise be considered an obscure foreign policy matter into a crucial priority for the Republican base on par with continued U.S. support for Israel.

“This has been made clear to the administration: all of the other investigations, the impeachment, really we see that as political theater,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “From day one there have been people trying to derail him.”

“This thing did shake the evangelical community a little bit,” Perkins added. “This was uncharacteristic of this administration.”

‘THE DAMAGE HAS BEEN DONE’

Shortly after news of the U.S. withdrawal broke, aides to both officials moved to shield their politically ambitious principals.

They walked a thin line between disparaging Trump for his decision and tying their bosses perilously close to the controversial move.

One senior Christian leader in frequent contact with senior administration officials said that Pompeo, who is being recruited to run for Senate in Kansas next year, was caught off guard by the timing of the announcement — as was much of the rest of Trump’s foreign policy team.

“I don’t know about the vice president,” the source said. “But [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan was pushing the president, and from what we heard this caught most people by surprise.”

A top Trump adviser said that “everyone noticed the silence” from the president’s senior team, raising suspicions early on that they had not been consulted prior to the president’s action.

In his first public remarks on Trump’s decision, three days after the White House statement, Pompeo said that the pullout did not amount to a “green light” for Turkey’s invasion — well underway at that point. He gave a speech two days later in Tennessee titled “Being a Christian Leader” that mentioned Kansas three times but offered no mention of Syria or the Kurds.

“We heard nothing to justify this decision,” one official with a major Christian organization told McClatchy as a mass Kurdish migration unfolded at rapid speed. Kurdish-led authorities say that over 275,000 people have been displaced since the Turkish operation began one week ago.

“Once the decision was made, what was there to backchannel?” the official said. “The damage has been done.”

It was a disempowering moment for two of the administration’s senior officials long considered the president’s most trusted advisers on matters crucial to religious conservatives.

Over the course of five days, a strategy emerged from both men to look past the chaos inflicted by the initial decision, and toward containing the damage.

Pence and Pompeo began explaining in phone calls that Trump was given no choice by Erdogan, who said the Turkish operation would proceed whether or not Washington hastily withdrew its personnel — U.S. “advisers on the border” not adequately equipped to defend themselves in the pending invasion.

Despite months of advice from his national security team not to proceed, Trump had in fact previewed the U.S. pullout for nearly a year, Pence and Pompeo noted to Christian political leaders, suggesting they should not have been surprised by his ultimate decision.

Their passive defense of the president appeared sufficient to quell criticism from Christian community leaders, after Pat Robertson, one of the nation’s most prominent televangelists, warned that Trump risked “losing the mandate of heaven” over the pullout.

From there, Pence and Pompeo became the public faces of a policy shift.

“Secretary Pompeo had the pleasure of meeting with thousands of Evangelical Christians last week in Nashville to discuss religious freedom and his deep faith that drives him every day,” a State Department spokeswoman told McClatchy. “Keeping an open dialogue with leaders of all faiths will continue to be a top priority for the Secretary as we address Turkey’s unilateral action in Syria.”

Pence made an unplanned appearance outside the West Wing on a federal holiday this week to outline “punishing” new sanctions against senior Turkish officials for the invasion. Pence and Pompeo hurriedly scheduled a diplomatic trip to Ankara to pressure Turkish officials against proceeding further south into Kurdish-held territory.

“I pray for the vice president that God will give him favor as he tries to negotiate with Erdogan about a ceasefire,” Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelist, said in an interview on Tuesday, “because if this continues, you’ll have another million people displaced in Syria.”

Pence called Graham on Tuesday morning, after he told the vice president’s office that he planned on deploying resources from his evangelical humanitarian aid organization, Samaritan’s Purse, to assist Kurdish refugees.

“I am convinced that the president and vice president want to see peace. I’m also convinced the president doesn’t want to see American soldiers killed in another person’s war,” Graham said. “We need to handle this quickly before it gets even more unraveled.”

POLITICAL JEOPARDY

Of three top Republicans that have served in Trump’s Cabinet angling for the party helm once he departs office, only one has true distance from his decision on the Kurds. And she did not mince words.

“We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back,” Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, wrote on Twitter. “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”

That placed Pence and Pompeo in a political predicament as they continue to serve a president unapologetic about his decision.

“It’s not our problem,” Trump said on Wednesday of Turkey’s continued invasion. The Kurds, he added, are “no angels.”

There is public evidence that Pompeo earlier believed the United States would not abandon the Kurds. Speaking with one Christian media reporter in the spring, Pompeo suggested he was aware of concerns within the community of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal of military personnel from that region.

“The challenges in Syria remain. The United States intends to remain,” Pompeo told the Christian Broadcast Network in March. “We are close to the destruction of the caliphate — it will be completed very, very soon. But the threat from radical Islamic terrorism continues, and so there will be a required continued effort from the United States to push back against ISIS in the region.”

Pompeo, one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants, has faced speculation about a possible 2020 Senate run since January. And while he’s downplayed interest in a run for Senate in Kansas, he remains a top pick for establishment Republicans in both Washington and Wichita.

“By far, Pompeo’s our best option. He’s got the credentials and that’s who I think Republicans would back 100 percent if he got in this race,” said Kelly Arnold, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman who lives in Wichita.

But some Kansan political experts are questioning whether Trump’s foreign policy controversies might complicate a Pompeo bid.

Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said that Pompeo has “gone from being a shoo-in to someone who is much more like a conventional favorite” because of the dual controversies over the withdrawal from Syria and revelations about Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders.

“The whole notion that we have a disorganized foreign policy, military policy does affect him,” Loomis said. “I do think to an extent the bloom is off that rose.”

Bob Beatty, chair of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, said the issue of Syria has “unsettled” Christian conservatives and could damage Pompeo with his base in a way that other foreign policy controversies would not.

“I have seen some real discomfort in Republicans about this Syria situation. I’ve had some Republicans say they’re very unhappy with the idea of abandoning Kurds,” Beatty said. “Even though it’s not an impeachment thing, that is the thing that I think could damage some of [his] Senate prospects.”

Pence, meanwhile, has a race to run alongside Trump — the 2020 presidential election — before he can focus on his own political aspirations, complicating any political effort to distance himself.

“The vice president ardently advocates for and assists those who are persecuted for their faith both here at home and abroad,” Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for Pence, said.

“The vice president, of course, supports the president,” she said.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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