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Syria and impeachment put Trump on defensive as House condemns pullout

President Trump on Wednesday dismissed criticism of his withdrawal from northeast Syria and the ensuing Turkish incursion, but a bipartisan vote in the House condemned his action. The fallout comes as another key witness testified in the impeachment inquiry. Amna Nawaz reports, then talks with Nick Schifrin and Yamiche Alcindor to track the developments and impact on Trump’s agenda.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    A president and his agenda under assault on two fronts.

    The U.S. withdrawal in Syria and the impeachment inquiry kept President Trump on the defensive today. He spent much of the day ignoring impeachment, and insisting his shift in Syria was the right move.

    At the White House, President Trump, after meeting with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella, dismissed criticism of his withdrawal from Northeast Syria and the ensuing Turkish invasion.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm not going to get involved in a war between Turkey and Syria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The president then likened Kurdish fighters belonging to the PKK militia to the Islamic State fighters they helped the U.S. fight in Syria.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Now, the PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Trump insisted he is making good on a longstanding promise to get U.S. troops out of long-running wars. And he played down fears that Russia will fill the vacuum.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Syria has a relationship with the Kurds. So they will come in for their border. And they will fight. They may bring partners in.

    They could bring Russia in. And I say, welcome to it. Frankly, if Russia is going to help in protecting the Kurds, that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those words drew sharp criticism from a Trump ally, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham:


    To rely on Russia and Iran to protect us against the rise of ISIS is, quite frankly, insane.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The president fired back at Graham.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years, with thousands of soldiers and fighting other people's wars. I want to get out of the Middle East.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Still, the president dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara this evening to press Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a cease-fire, a plan Erdogan dismissed before Turkish Parliament today, unless the Kurds withdrew from the Turkish-Syrian border.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Operation Peace Spring will last until we go down to 30 to 35 kilometers along the line from Manbij to the Iraqi border, as we have previously declared. There is no doubt or hesitation about this. We will have no open doors on this matter.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All of this as President Trump's other critical challenge ground on, with another key witness testifying in the impeachment inquiry.

    Michael McKinley, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, abruptly resigned from his post last week. He was reportedly telling congressional investigators that his departure was driven by a concern over the treatment of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She was recalled from her post in May, amid agitation inside the White House that she was disloyal to the president.

    Also on the Hill today, a surprise second appearance from former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. State Department official George Kent told lawmakers yesterday that Volker was part of a group that took over the administration's Ukraine policy.

    Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly said the group also included Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. They allegedly dubbed themselves the three amigos.

    With back-to back interviews and depositions this week, House Democrats are pushing on with the probe, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday the House would hold off on a vote to formally authorize the inquiry.

    Today, House Republicans again accused Democrats of running an unfair process. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said they are being denied access to closed testimony and transcripts.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    Somehow, we're supposed to trust what comes out of that? And they deny members of Congress, who are lent the power and the voice of the American public, to even read what goes on. They deny members of Congress from even the ability to sit inside that committee.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The investigation continues tomorrow, with Ambassador Sondland testifying behind closed doors.

    Both impeachment and Syria converged at a late-afternoon White House meeting, where Mr. Trump clashed with top Democrats after a bipartisan vote in the House condemned his action in Syria.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    I think the president was very shaken up by the fact that 300 — was it 350 — 354 — I had to make sure I had the number correct — and that means a majority, a big majority of the Republicans voted. What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more on the developments today and this week on the House impeachment inquiry, I'm joined by our own Yamiche Alcindor, who's been tracking developments from the White House, and Nick Schifrin, who's following the diplomatic storylines.

    Yamiche, let me begin with you now.

    We heard the president there defending his decision in Syria to pull back those U.S. troops. How is that defense complicating or impacting the very real political challenges he's facing right now?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria is really complicating the political landscape as he needs Republicans to back him, and as Democrats are forging ahead with their impeachment inquiry.

    Today, as you noted, the White House held a meeting with Republican leaders and Democratic leaders, and that meeting really went into chaos and devolved into partisan attacks.

    Nancy Pelosi, as you said, said that the president had a meltdown. She also said that people should now pray for the president's health because he's essentially not really mentally stable.

    Chuck Schumer also said that the president was attacking Nancy Pelosi, calling her a third-grade politician.

    The White House, though, is pushing back on that. The White House is saying that President Trump was actually very measured and that Democrats walked out of the meeting and that they didn't really get the work done that they were there to have.

    But all of this is really because President Trump is feeling very, very anxious about the fact the House overwhelmingly voted in a bipartisan way to condemn his actions in Syria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, that meeting we talked about was late today, this afternoon at the White House.

    Also late today, you got your hands on a letter that President Trump sent to President Erdogan of Turkey. Tell us what was in that letter and what kind of response it's getting, especially from members of the president's own party.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, again, the president is really alienating and angering Republicans at a time when he critically needs Republicans on the Hill, in the House and the Senate, to be on his side because of this impeachment inquiry.

    I want to read what the president released today. It's a letter to the president of Turkey dated October 9.

    It says, in part: "Let's work out a good deal. It will look upon you forever — history will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool."

    So, that's President Trump really trying to give Republicans something to say, look, I'm being tough on Turkey here.

    Now, Republicans who also were in that meeting at the White House are backing up the president. Kevin McCarthy was saying that the president was actually trying to get things done and that Nancy Pelosi was really overly politicizing the meeting.

    But what is clear is that there is bipartisan condemnation of the president's actions. And the House is actually going to be now looking into a sanctions package that is going to be above what the president is doing in Turkey.

    So Republicans, while they're backing up the president with his rhetoric, they are really pushing back on his ideas and his actions in Syria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bipartisan anger there.

    Nick, step back with us for a second. Let's fill in some context here.

    It's not just Syria that members of Congress are angry about here, right? What else is Trump facing right now from them?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, I think and Congress reflects a kind the national security consensus that we have seen largely since 1945, since the end of the World War — since the end of World War II, that the U.S. should play a leading, if not the leading role in the world, and that the U.S. military is a key tool in order to pursue U.S. interests.

    And, today, that has led the U.S. military to have bases in over 70 countries. Now, President Trump referred to that number today, and not in a good way. And he criticizes and fundamentally questions the idea of how the military has been used.

    And he advocates for restraint of the U.S. military, how it's deployed and where it's deployed. And he gave one of the most clear explanations of a kind of Trump doctrine, a kind of grand strategy, when, as we saw a little bit of in your piece, when he was responding to criticism by Senator Graham.

  • President Donald Trump:

    When I ran, I ran on a basis we're going to bring our great soldiers back home, where they belong. We don't have to fight these endless wars.

    Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years, with thousands of soldiers and fighting other people's wars. The people of South Carolina don't want us to get into a war with Turkey, a NATO member, or with Syria. Let them fight their own wars.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, by the way, President Trump is not the only one making that argument.

    Last night, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for president, also said, hey, look, the U.S. should come out of the Middle East.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we're hearing the president say, I ran on this. This is what I promised I would do. This is my foreign policy.

    But the criticism he is facing isn't just coming from members of Congress, right? It's coming from other government agencies, too.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From largely within his own government, because of that foreign policy consensus.

    The military, the State Department, intelligence officials I talk to all advocate a policy that they say Syria is a perfect example of, right? It is a small military footprint all over the world, and that those small military, special operations forces, largely, will be training local forces who can pursue U.S. policies.

    And, of course, Syria is an example. And that is instead of sending 100,000 troops, for example, to Iraq and Afghanistan. And these people believe that Syria was a good version of it, and also that it was sustainable.

    They also argue it's necessary, because if the U.S. is not in places like Syria or Afghanistan, then there could be vacuums, and in those vacuums, terrorists could plot attacks against the United States.

    And there's one last critique that I talked to — that I heard from people who even argued for restraint today. And they said, if you're going to restrain the U.S. military, you need to reduce the budget for the U.S. military, you need to increase the budget and kind of focus on the State Department, the diplomats, the intelligence agencies.

    And they say that President Trump has increased the Pentagon budget and decreased the State Department budgets. But President Trump says he just has got a different world view.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some inherent tensions there.

    Yamiche, back to you.

    Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the impeachment inquiry continues. There are still a number of officials appearing on Capitol Hill and testifying as part of that probe.

    Who else do we know was on the Hill today, and what do we know about what happened there?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    There was some critically important testimony going on, on the Hill today related to the impeachment inquiry.

    Michael McKinley, as you noted, was here on Capitol Hill in D.C. talking about what he thinks was the unjustified removal of the former ambassador to Ukraine.

    Sources tell me that he said that diplomats were being mistreated under President Trump's administration. He also said that people's careers are being upended because of political reasons, I'm told by sources.

    That said, we're going to see more of this. Gordon Sondland is supposed to be coming to the Hill tomorrow to testify. He is the current ambassador to the European Union. Now, he is someone who is seen as an ally to President Trump.

    But, at the same time, these testimonies have really been surprising in a lot of ways. So, it's going to be important to really watch that.

    Also, Bill Taylor, he's a career official who is still working at the State Department. But he's the person who sent that text message that said he thought it would be "crazy" — quote, unquote — to withhold aid from Ukraine for political reasons. He was concerned about that. He's now going to be coming to Capitol Hill next week to testify.

    So, these are all things that we need to watch, as the president continues to be very, very angry about this impeachment inquiry and really is saying the Democrats are doing this to hurt his presidency, and not to look into actual wrongdoing here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Another jam-packed day here in Washington.

    Yamiche Alcindor and Nick Schifrin on top of it all, thanks to you both.

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