“This was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe not focused on the facts,” Chuck Schumer said of the meeting.
A high-level meeting Wednesday between President Donald Trump and top congressional leaders over the Syria crisis ended abruptly after Trump insulted Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which spurred Democratic leaders to walk out of the White House.
It was the latest blowup between Trump and top Democrats, and showed once again that the relationship between the embattled president and his Democratic counterparts has reached levels of toxicity rarely seen in any administration.
Just hours before the meeting, Trump made clear where he stood on the Turkish invasion of northern Syria: “It’s not our border.”
Trump told reporters Wednesday that his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria — which was quickly followed by the Turkish attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces — was “strategically brilliant” while downplaying Russian intervention in the conflict.
“Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe,” Trump said. “Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine. It’s a lot of sand — they’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand that they could play with.”
But Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Trump of having “a meltdown” during their meeting in the historic Cabinet Room.
The three Democrats said Trump appeared unhinged by a House vote condemning the Syria withdrawal, and the meeting quickly degenerated into a name-calling session led by the president, according to the Democrats. The trio walked out of the meeting before it was over, they told reporters afterward.
“[Trump] was insulting, particularly to the speaker,” Schumer said. “She kept her cool completely, but he called her a third-rate politician. And he said there are communists involved [in ISIS], and you guys might like that. This was not a dialogue; this was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe not focused on the facts.”
Pelosi said Trump appeared “very shaken up” after the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and the abandonment of its Kurdish allies. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), GOP Conference Chairman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) were among the 129 Republicans who crossed party lines and voted for the Democratic-drafted measure, a dramatic slap at Trump in the midst of one the most serious foreign policy crises of his presidency.
“What we witness on the part of the president was a meltdown, sad to say,” Pelosi declared.
“We were offended — deeply — by his treatment of the speaker of the House of Representatives,” Hoyer added. “I have served with six presidents. I have been in many, many, many meetings like this. Never have I seen a president treat so disrespectfully a co-equal branch of the government of the United States.”
Democrats walked out after Trump let loose a stream of personal attacks on Pelosi, including calling her a “third-rate politician.”
A Democratic source familiar with the meeting said it “devolved into the president calling the speaker a name. [Trump] was quite nasty, so she stood up to go. She started to sit back down but [Hoyer] got her to go. Pelosi and Hoyer walked out of the meeting.].”
McCarthy told reporters that Pelosi “stormed out” of the White House meeting.
“Unfortunately, the speaker tries to make everything political. Her own statements weren’t productive,” he told reporters. “To storm out of a meeting, which I’ve watched times before in other crises, is really not the style of how a speaker should carry herself.”
During the White House meeting, Trump repeatedly asked why he should be responsible for terrorists that are 7,000 miles away. Cheney reminded the president that the terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 came from 7,000 miles away, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
The ugly exchange between the country’s top political leaders — while common in the Trump era — capped off another disastrous day for Trump, who has been lambasted by lawmakers in both parties over the Syria debacle.
Even top Republicans — normally wary of crossing the thin-skinned president — expressed deep dismay over Trump’s latest comments, which they viewed as a sign the president is digging in over his controversial move to abruptly upend U.S. foreign policy in the region.
“I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t reemerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “However, I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq.”
Trump later pushed back at Graham — a vocal Trump critic turned huge loyalist — saying the South Carolina Republican “would like to stay in the Middle East for the 1000 years … I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary.”
Lawmakers in both parties also slammed the president’s remarks as undermining Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who are traveling to Ankara on Wednesday to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The high-level U.S. delegation hopes to broker a ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish forces, although Erdogan already told Sky News that he had no plans to halt the offensive.
“Big, big mistake,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) of Trump’s Syria policy. “One thing I’m pretty certain of is that Erdogan is not going to agree to a ceasefire until he’s established control of northern Syria.”
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who is crafting a bipartisan sanctions package and attended the White House meeting, said the president assured lawmakers that “we are not withdrawing completely from Syria.”
“As I pointed out to the president, within one year, this president crushed the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. And today we see the situation as a little different,” McCaul said. “I wanted assurances from the president … to have a residual force in Syria to protect the homeland. I was given that assurance today that we are not withdrawing completely from Syria. We will have a residual force of special operators, to first and foremost, protect the homeland.”
Trump may still avoid a formal rebuke in the GOP-controlled Senate as some Republicans are beginning to soften their criticism.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has given no indication that he would allow a version of the House resolution to be taken up by his chamber, although that could change after the White House session.
McConnell said Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria was a “mistake.” But he also noted that there was only so much Congress could do to persuade Trump to change his mind.
“Any president has a lot of latitude in deploying troops and many of us have been arguing that this was a mistake, it shouldn’t have been done and hoping that he would reverse course,” McConnell said. “There seems to be no evidence of it so far.”
McConnell didn’t directly address the House resolution condemning Trump’s removal of troops from northern Syria, but reiterated that the Senate is considering legislation that would impose sanctions on Turkey.
Schumer urged McConnell at a news conference to bring the House resolution to the floor.
“This legislation is a repudiation of President Trump’s actions — a clear repudiation,” Schumer said. “There is no better way to put pressure on him.”
One Republican senator privately said the resolution seemed less popular in the caucus at this time because it could be seen as a shot at Trump. Other Republicans said the meeting with the president on Wednesday could determine the legislative response from Trump’s own party.
“I would hope that he would be open to changing his policies based on the inputs he gets … we have some very strong views up here on what’s going on. And we’re in a tough spot now because the horse is out of the barn,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “Whatever discussions occur with the White House and president, hopefully we’ll find a way to move forward in the same direction.”
Democrats expressed little hope that Trump will reverse course and planned to move ahead with the resolution vote in the House before the White House huddle.
“I don’t have any kind of idea why the president has had this meeting. Perhaps to inform us of why he made this decision. So we’ll see,” Hoyer said. “It is hard to conceive of an action more helpful to our enemies … This is a betrayal of our allies across the world and the consequences are growing by the day.”
The administration dispatched Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to explain Trump’s Syria decision to a group of House Republicans. But GOP lawmakers were not satisfied by Esper’s response to questions about how the Pentagon was going to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, according to aides familiar with the meeting.
Cheney, an outspoken critic of Trump’s Syria shift who attended the White House meeting, will unveil a sanctions package on Wednesday that has broad GOP support and is tougher than the bipartisan legislation being drafted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Cheney did not call out Trump by name during a GOP news conference on Wednesday morning, though she did take a shot at rival Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has loudly backed Trump’s decision.
“Our allies the Kurds frankly are facing what looks like a betrayal from the United States. That could have very negative impacts and consequences for us globally,” Cheney said. “If we go down the path that’s been suggested by Sen. Paul and others into isolationism, then others will fill that void.”