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Rubio: Trump ‘about to make a major blunder’ on Syria

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said President Donald Trump “is abandoning that effort [in Syria] before it is completely finished,” and that it is the job of Congress to attempt to convince him otherwise.

“I think he is about to make a major blunder” by pulling out of Syria, Rubio told the PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff.

The president’s announcement this week that U.S. troops would be pulling out from Syria, where it has been aiding forces against Islamic State militants, surprised and outraged members of Congress, including some loyal to the president. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday offered his resignation in a blistering letter about the importance of America’s global alliances — a decision many believe was motivated by the president’s decision on Syria.

Rubio said that what concerned him the most from Mattis’ abrupt departure was what the defense secretary wrote in his letter, which seemed to “confirm our fears” about upcoming decisions facing the Trump administration.

“I’m deeply concerned that we’re about to undertake a series of foreign policy decisions that are going to undermine our security, that are going to undermine our alliances and that are going to embolden our adversaries.”

Other highlights from the interview:

  • Withdrawing from Syria needs more oversight: Rubio said that while Congress can’t order the commander in chief to stay in a military operation like Syria, he thought it was important to use the role of oversight to call national security officials like the secretary of state and defense to testify on why they think it makes sense to leave Syria when ISIS has not been fully defeated.
  • Trump’s decision could undermine his progress in the Middle East. Rubio said he believed the president deserves credit for the “dramatic erosion” of ISIS in the Middle East, but this decision could undermine all of the progress.“I don’t think we have enough time to talk about all the different problems that this creates,” he added.
  • On the government funding impasse. Late Friday, lawmakers continued to try to negotiate a spending bill by the midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown. Rubio said he believes the White House should have told senators on Wednesday that the president wouldn’t sign their version of a funding bill, so that lawmakers could have spent the week trying to find a compromise. He says the current House version of the funding bill, which would boost border security funds by $5 billion, is “not unreasonable.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we get reaction now to the Mattis' resignation, and to the spending and shutdown fight, from Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.

    We spoke a short time ago about his concerns first over Mattis stepping down.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Well, obviously, losing Jim Mattis, someone of his character and caliber, is a big loss. But it's not unusual for the secretary of defense to move on. And administrations sometimes have two or three.

    My biggest concern was what he wrote in the letter. And it seemed to imply, when I put that together with things I have heard from others over the last 10 days, in consultation with the folks at the administration, it seems like we're headed in the direction of not just what's happened in Syria, but similar measures in other places.

    And I look at that, and I apply it to what's happening around the world, and I'm deeply concerned we're about to undertake a series of foreign policy decisions that are going to undermine our security, that are going to undermine our alliances, and that are going to embolden our adversaries.

    So, of course, we hate to lose Mattis, but we knew the day would come. He wouldn't be there for eight years. At least we didn't think he would. So that's not the part. I think the part that really concerned me the most was what he wrote in a letter. And it seems to sort of confirm some of the fears we have about upcoming or pending decisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we do believe that he's the first defense secretary to resign in protest, at least in modern times.

    But what I want to ask you is, what is the check? We just heard from Leon Panetta on Richard Haass.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is the check to prevent from happening what you are worried about? And that is moving in a direction that you think it's dangerous for the country.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    You know, that's a very good question.

    And a lot of people out there, you hear — as you voice these complaints that I voice, the comeback is, well, do something about it. And in the field of foreign policy, there are limits to what Congress can do.

    As an example, in Syria, Congress, using the control of the purse strings, we can cut off funding for an operation, but we can't order the commander in chief to stay in one or to undertake one.

    And so I think our role is largely, although an important role, is the role of oversight. For example, I mean, I would love for us to be having hearings. I know it's the end of the year, but I think it's important for the secretary of state, for the secretary of defense or others to come before the appropriate committees in Congress and sort of outline why this is a good idea and answer questions, as an example, with ISIS.

    The intelligence information that's available, that has been widely leaked and reported, and people discuss all the time, but just open-source reporting — let's just rely on that — makes it clear that ISIS has not been defeated, that ISIS remains a threat in the region, and that they're reconstituting themselves into an insurgency.

    Without Americans there, we know the Kurds are likely to abandon the effort to fight ISIS and return to their home cities to fight against the Turks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Who is going to be fighting ISIS on the ground? What's the administration's plan to prevent them from posing a threat to America again from Syrian territory?

    Those questions need to be answered. And that's one of the roles Congress can play, is to really press on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, given those concerns and others that you have expressed, do you believe this president should be trusted, entrusted with foreign policy for this country?

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Well, look, I think the president deserves credit for eroding ISIS' presence. If you look at what territorial control they had when he took office and where they are today, it's been a dramatic erosion.

    He has done what many of us asked for, and that is U.S. air and logistical support, combined with local ground forces, in this case, the Kurds, and through the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces that included Arab recruits from the area, to fight ISIS on the ground. He has done that.

    My qualms with him now is, he is abandoning that effort before it is completely finished. ISIS still does control territory, so he deserves credit for the first part. I think he's about to make a major blunder on the second part. And our job is to try to hopefully convince him, both through these airwaves and personally and working with the administration, to reverse or change course in that regard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, I mean, basically, you're saying what he's doing now could undermine everything that happened before.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If this is allowed to continue.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    And that's why I think those of us who have supported his initiatives in foreign policy and in other measures, he deserves to hear that from us.

    We do him and his administration no favor to sort of go along with something that we believe is going to be counterproductive for America on multiple fronts. I don't think we have enough time to talk about all the different problems that this creates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Senator, do you think that that's been done? I mean, a lot of people look at you and other Republican members of Congress and say there hasn't been enough of a check on this president, that he hasn't been held accountable sufficiently.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Well, I would say that it depends who it is you're talking about.

    In the case of foreign policy, the president has — we have worked with the White House to do many things, changes in policy on Cuba, sanctions on Venezuela.

    And if you look at what he's done in Syria, our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, our support for Ukraine, he provided them defensive military capabilities, which the previous administration wouldn't do. You saw the surge and then continued surge that began under the Obama administration of our presence in the Asia Pacific region.

    We have been supportive of those initiatives. I'm the one that filed the bill to put sanctions in place on Russia. They interfered in our elections again, prescriptive sanctions. The bill didn't pass, but we know it had an influence on what the National Security Council wrote up as a policy.

    So, when we have disagreed with the White House, we have said it. But it's all in the interests of serving our country and helping the administration be successful. And we have allies within the administration that agree with us.

    Ultimately, if the president decides to go in a different direction, I owe it to the people I represent in Florida and to the country to say so and to try to do what I can to prevent that from happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, just very quickly, to the other important story, of course, development today, and that is the impasse over what's going to happen with government funding, a potential shutdown of the government.

    You said this week that you were led to believe by the White House that there was an agreement, that they changed their position on this.

    I mean, how do you — how do you — how do you assess the White House handling of this?

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Well, look, I think the White House should have told us on Wednesday that they weren't going to have support the version that was before the Senate before we voted on it. I tweeted that earlier today. I believe that now.

    We — the vice president, who's a good man and doing a good job, but he was at our lunch on Wednesday. And he said the White House was open to what the Senate was working on. If they had said otherwise, I think we could have spent Wednesday and Thursday and on into today working on this matter.

    But we can't undo that. I think they could have done that better. They didn't. That's past. Now we got to move forward.

    I also don't want to leave unsaid that what is in that House bill that came over to us, it's not unreasonable. There's nothing radical about funding the top 10 priorities of a long-term border improvement plan that's in place, which is not all wall, by the way. Some of it is, but some of it are other things.

    And if you want to put the migration part of it aside for a moment, which is a big problem — I'm not diminishing it — but the majority of the heroin and fentanyl that are killing people in this country is being trafficked across that border, not by Mexico, by drug cartels that are using Mexico.

    So it's bad for Mexico as well. That alone justifies $5 billion. And it's being opposed by people who have voted for far more money in the past for border security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Senator, the president is describing that $5 billion as money for a physical wall. And that's what the Democrats say they oppose.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Yes, that's part of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That that's the disagreement.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Yes, but they have supported a physical wall in the past.

    In 2013, I was part of an effort to pass an immigration reform bill that spent much more than $5 billion and included a wall. The wall is not a new concept around here, and it is part of a solution. The wall alone isn't going to solve the problem, but the wall is part of it. It funnels traffic. People misunderstand its purpose.

    Its purpose is to funnel border traffic into areas that you can monitor to prevent unlawful migration, but also to prevent the running of illegal guns and drugs that are killing Americans.

    And, by the way, I believe that we are going to have a partner with Mexico in dealing with this, because they are the ones that are now getting stuck with the cost of migrants that are being stranded as they come through Mexico. They are the ones that are dealing with these vicious drug gangs who are making their money by being able to get drugs across that border and into the American marketplace.

    Mexico is a regional power. And we should be partnering with them. And I believe we can. And I hope that we will to confront these challenges. And I think they too would benefit from taking away the magnet of a porous U.S. border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Marco Rubio, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    Thank you.

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