Trump Says U.S. Will Let Turkey Launch Military Offensive In Syria, Prompting Outrage
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It is time to bring home U.S. troops from Syria. That was a tweet from the president this morning. It made many people think the president was acting on his longstanding goal of getting U.S. forces out of long-running wars in the Middle East. He also appeared to be clearing the way for Turkey to cross the border into northern Syria. But what has followed today has been confusion and criticism of the president, followed by more tweets from Trump, including one in which he threatened to destroy the economy of Turkey. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: It feels like it might be a good idea to just back us up 24 hours or so. We know that President Trump had a phone call with President Erdogan of Turkey, and then all this unspooled from there. What happened?
MYRE: Right. Well, these presidential phone calls with foreign leaders continue to be highly problematic. Trump spoke with the Turkish president, Erdogan, on Sunday. And then late last night, this surprising White House statement that Turkey was planning to send its military into northern Syria. Well, that's exactly where the U.S. has about a thousand forces. They fought the Islamic State there. They've stayed there and maintained the peace, but it wasn't quite clear what it was going to happen.
But then the president followed up on Twitter this morning, said, quote, "it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous, endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home." This created the very strong impression that Trump would follow through with this pledge.
KELLY: Has the president clarified if that is, in fact, what he was signaling he wants to happen?
MYRE: Well, he's tried. He was asked today - this afternoon if he was siding with Turkey by allowing them to come across the border, and he denied this and explained for now, this Turkish incursion is expected. But he was just moving a small number of U.S. special operators out of harm's way. Let's have a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I'm not siding with anybody. We've been in Syria for many years. You know, Syria was supposed to be a short-term hit - just a very short-term hit, and we were supposed to be in and out. That was many, many years ago. And we only have 50 people in that area. That's a small sector.
MYRE: So he's saying it's just moving these troops out of the way so if the Turks come through, they won't - there won't be any clashes and that it's not a large-scale U.S. withdrawal.
KELLY: OK, so it is not the full pullout that he announced he was going to do back in December, and then he walked out back.
MYRE: Right. In fact, the Pentagon - the State Department and a senior White House official have all given briefings sort of trying to clean up the confusion that the president caused by this and saying that the U.S. opposes a Turkish incursion and that Turkey will be responsible for whatever happens if they come across the border into northern Syria.
KELLY: Right. Stay with Turkey for a second because I mentioned this tweet that came out today - President Trump threatening to destroy the economy of Turkey. What's the context?
MYRE: Right. So he's made this sort of ominous warning first by tweet and then second, when he made some remarks again today. And, again, here's what he said about Turkey.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: I have told Turkey that if they do anything outside of what we would think is humane, to use a word a second time - we talk about Hong Kong. We talk about this. They could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy.
MYRE: So Turkey is a NATO member. The U.S. and Turkey have been holding joint security patrols. There's a Trump Tower in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul.
KELLY: Yeah. In fact, there's two of them. There are Trump Towers in Istanbul. Very briefly, Greg, what kind of reaction are we hearing?
MYRE: High-level criticism across the board - in fact, it's been quite striking that Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney have all come out harshly against the president.
KELLY: All right. That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.