Trump’s Syria move opens a new con­flict — with stal­wart GOP al­lies

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND ROBERT COSTA

Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ci­sion to sud­denly with­draw U.S. troops from north­ern Syria has an­gered evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian lead­ers and Repub­li­can hawks, cleav­ing his po­lit­i­cal coali­tion at the very mo­ment he is try­ing to for­tify his stand­ing to sur­vive the in­ten­si­fy­ing im­peach­ment in­quiry in Congress.

In­stead of en­joy­ing un­con­tested GOP sup­port as he plunges into a con­sti­tu­tional show­down with House Democrats and pre­pares for a bruis­ing re­elec­tion cam­paign, Trump is now fight­ing on two fronts within his party.

The pres­i­dent si­mul­ta­ne­ously has been la­bor­ing to si­lence dis­sent over his con­duct in press­ing Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal ri­val and over his Syria de­ci­sion — a move crit­ics blame for Wed­nes­day’s Turk­ish of­fen­sive.

The past few days have tested the bounds of Trump’s Repub­li­can sup­port at an un­usu­ally fren­zied po­lit­i­cal cross­roads that has brought un­cer­tainty for elected of­fi­cials. While GOP law­mak­ers have been skit­tish about di­rectly en­gag­ing the sub­ject at the heart of the im­peach­ment de­bate — the pres­i­dent’s con­duct with his Ukrainian coun­ter­part — many have felt free to loudly con­demn Trump’s Syria de­ci­sion, un­der­scor­ing the flu­id­ity within GOP

ranks.

Con­sider Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most loyal de­fend­ers, whose Twit­ter feed has neatly il­lus­trated this dy­namic. In the span of 15 hours, he par­roted Trump’s points by ac­cus­ing House Democrats of “de­stroy­ing” the Constituti­on with their im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings and con­demned the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for hav­ing “shame­lessly abandoned” Kur­dish al­lies. “This move en­sures the reemer­gence of ISIS,” Gra­ham added.

Or con­sider Rep. Liz Cheney (R-wyo.), a mem­ber of her party’s lead­er­ship, who backed up the pres­i­dent last week by tweet­ing that the im­peach­ment probe was “start­ing to seem like a po­lit­i­cal set up.” On Wed­nes­day, she is­sued a scorch­ing state­ment: “Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw U.S. forces from north­ern Syria is hav­ing sick­en­ing and pre­dictable con­se­quences.”

Al­though there is al­ways a risk in break­ing with a pres­i­dent who de­mands ab­so­lute loy­alty from within his party, many Repub­li­cans feel far safer do­ing so on more dis­tant is­sues of for­eign pol­icy, where Trump of­ten finds him­self out­side of his party’s his­toric po­si­tion­ing, such as Syria, than on mat­ters that per­son­ally af­fect Trump, such as im­peach­ment, ac­cord­ing to party of­fi­cials and strate­gists.

“The com­plex­ity with Syria, Tur­key and the Kurds is be­yond the nor­mal per­son’s understand­ing,” for­mer North Carolina gov­er­nor Pat Mccrory (R) said. “It’s one of those is­sues that seems to be im­por­tant, but no one un­der­stands the com­plex­i­ties. All you hear is, ‘Trump might have made a mis­take there,’ but not much more than that.”

The Syria is­sue, Mccrory said, is “not per­sonal for most Trump sup­port­ers. It’s a for­eign pol­icy dis­agree­ment.”

Michael Steel, a for­mer GOP House lead­er­ship ad­viser, ex­plained that, over the past three years, law­mak­ers have been “test­ing the bound­aries of the pres­i­dent’s tol­er­ance for dis­sent.”

On pol­icy dis­agree­ments, he said, “You see a great deal more lat­i­tude. You don’t see an­gry tweet storms about Repub­li­cans who voted for sanc­tions on Rus­sia. The dis­agree­ment over Syria has stayed in that bucket.”

Trump de­fended his move to pull out of the Syr­ian con­flict dur­ing a lengthy ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with re­porters at the White House on Wed­nes­day. He ar­gued that Amer­i­cans had long tired of the “end­less wars” over­seas and that “even­tu­ally some­body was go­ing to have to make the de­ci­sion.”

Re­count­ing a past visit to watch as the re­mains of fallen sol­diers were re­turned to the United States, the pres­i­dent re­called fam­ily mem­bers some­times “run to the cof­fin. They’ll break through mil­i­tary bar­ri­ers, they’ll run to the cof­fin and jump on top of the cof­fin, cry­ing, moth­ers and wives, cry­ing des­per­ately. And this is on these end­less wars that just never stop.”

Trump has largely shrugged off com­plaints this week from top al­lies, in­clud­ing prom­i­nent evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, about his Syria de­ci­sion, re­frain­ing — at least so far — from the Twit­ter taunts and put-downs with which he usu­ally re­sponds to crit­i­cism. Asked about Gra­ham’s com­ments, Trump was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally re­strained.

“Lind­sey and I feel dif­fer­ently,” the pres­i­dent said. “I think Lind­sey would like to stay there for the next 200 years and maybe add a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple ev­ery place, but I dis­agree with Lind­sey on that.”

Trump’s ad­vis­ers said his de­fi­ance is fu­eled by his own con­fi­dence that most Repub­li­can vot­ers are far more fo­cused on the im­peach­ment de­bate than on for­eign pol­icy, and he be­lieves many in his base share his non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist in­stincts.

Chip Salts­man, a Repub­li­can strate­gist based in Ten­nessee, said that con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists are abuzz over the Trump-vs.-house Democrats im­peach­ment skir­mish. “I have talked to no­body in the grass-roots world, Gop-wise, that brought up Syria,” Salts­man said. “I’ve talked to evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers who have. [But] to the base elec­torate right now, im­peach­ment is so loud that Syria doesn’t reg­is­ter yet.”

Evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers have been out­spo­ken about the Syria with­drawal, both be­cause Chris­tians there fear a Turk­ish takeover and out of fear that in­sta­bil­ity or a power vac­uum in the re­gion could re­sult in Iran gain­ing in­flu­ence and ul­ti­mately threat­en­ing Is­rael.

“Evan­gel­i­cals see this de­ci­sion as a punch to the gut, but punches to the gut don’t al­ways have a last­ing ef­fect,” said David Brody, chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Network. He said the back­lash over Syria amounts to “a mini cri­sis” for the White House, but added, “The pres­i­dent has done so much for evan­gel­i­cals, in terms of judges and leg­is­la­tion, that this Syria de­ci­sion isn’t go­ing to be the death knell.”

For­mer Arkansas gov­er­nor Mike Huck­abee (R), who has a deep fol­low­ing on the re­li­gious right, tweeted, “I gen­er­ally sup­port @POTUS on for­eign pol­icy & don’t want our troops fight­ing other na­tions’ wars, but a HUGE mis­take to aban­don Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fight­ing-just give them tools to de­fend them­selves. They have been faith­ful al­lies. We CAN­NOT aban­don them.”

Still, Trump, as well as Vice Pres­i­dent Pence and se­nior ad­viser Jared Kush­ner, have so as­sid­u­ously cul­ti­vated re­la­tion­ships with evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers that some of them have his back re­gard­less. For ex­am­ple, Robert Jef­fress, a Dal­las evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor and televangel­ist, said the pres­i­dent sent him a “deeply ap­pre­ci­ated hand­writ­ten let­ter” to thank him for his sup­port­ive words on TV.

“He knows we’re out there sup­port­ing him and re­mind­ing peo­ple on our side that they shouldn’t be sur­prised that the pres­i­dent who cam­paigned on end­ing wars wants to end wars,” Jef­fress said.

On im­peach­ment, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers are more in line with Trump, pub­licly at least, than on Syria. Still, new cracks are emerg­ing. Sen. Rob Port­man (R-ohio), a sea­soned party leader re­garded for his cau­tion and keen po­lit­i­cal in­stincts, told the Colum­bus Dis­patch that it is “not ap­pro­pri­ate for a pres­i­dent to en­gage a for­eign govern­ment in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent.”

Port­man joins Sens. Mitt Rom­ney of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Su­san Collins of Maine in ex­press­ing vary­ing de­grees of con­cern about Trump’s con­duct.

Scott Reed, chief po­lit­i­cal strate­gist at the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, said Repub­li­can of­fi­cials were tak­ing things “day-to-day” be­cause in­for­ma­tion con­tin­ues to be re­vealed at a fast clip. “Ev­ery­body is in a wait-and-see po­si­tion,” he said of mem­bers of Congress.

Pub­lic polling shows an in­crease in sup­port for im­peach­ment, in­clud­ing a Wash­ing­ton Post-schar School sur­vey re­leased this week that mea­sured sup­port for open­ing the im­peach­ment in­quiry at 58 per­cent among all Amer­i­cans. Three in 10 Repub­li­cans sup­port it as well.

For­mer Repub­li­can con­gress­man Char­lie Dent said his friends in the House are mak­ing im­peach­ment cal­cu­la­tions based on base pol­i­tics. “I think mem­bers will stick with the pres­i­dent as long as the base sticks with them,” Dent said. “I think it’s a mis­take, hon­estly. They could ac­tu­ally af­fect opin­ions of the base if more of them spoke up. It’s just a func­tion of lead­er­ship.”

There is an ac­knowl­edg­ment inside some quar­ters of the West Wing that Trump can­not ig­nore the skit­tish­ness of Repub­li­cans. Trump is work­ing in­tently to rally his po­lit­i­cal base to his side. Fol­low­ing dis­cus­sions at the White House last month about the im­per­a­tive to “get Trump out into the coun­try,” as one of­fi­cial put it, the pres­i­dent sched­uled cam­paign ral­lies for this Thurs­day in Min­nesota and Fri­day in Louisiana. The of­fi­cial spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

In the com­ing weeks, White House act­ing chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney is plan­ning to help Trump be­gin a quiet charm of­fen­sive with con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, host­ing pri­vate din­ners and meet­ings, gath­er­ings at Camp David and other ways of ex­press­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion for their sup­port, ac­cord­ing to three Trump ad­vis­ers who were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion looks for­ward to con­tin­ued en­gage­ment with mem­bers about many real is­sues fac­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple and sadly, even the Democrats’ shame­ful po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated ones like this fake im­peach­ment,” White House spokesman Ho­gan Gi­d­ley said in an email.

Pence, mean­while, trav­eled Wed­nes­day to the Mid­west to try to build pres­sure on Congress to pass the U.s.-mex­ico-canada trade agree­ment. “I came to Iowa to­day to turn up the heat,” Pence said at an event in Wau­kee.

“The truth is, and we all know it, Democrats have been spend­ing all their time on end­less in­ves­ti­ga­tions and par­ti­san im­peach­ment,” Pence said. “But enough is enough. The Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve bet­ter.”

At the vice pres­i­dent’s side there was Ernst, who faces a tough re­elec­tion fight next year and re­cently was con­fronted by a con­stituent who was frus­trated about her un­will­ing­ness to stand up against Trump. Ernst was all smiles as she greeted Iowans with Pence on a farm sur­rounded by fields of corn, leav­ing no doubt that she fully em­braces the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

She later stood next to Pence be­fore re­porters and said she was “glad” to join him.

Costa re­ported from Wau­kee, Iowa.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sens. Mitt Rom­ney (R-utah) and Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.) have ex­pressed vary­ing de­grees of con­cern about the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions.

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