U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at the National Governors Association meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Photographer: Aude Guerrucci/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Defends Syria Exit on First Visit to Troops in Combat Zone

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump delivered a speech to U.S. soldiers in Iraq on Wednesday, making his first visit to troops in a combat zone as commander-in-chief a week after dismissing his defense secretary in a dispute over Middle East strategy.

The president told reporters at Joint Base al Asad, west of Baghdad, that he has no plans to withdraw American troops from Iraq. He said the U.S. may use the country as a base for regional operations against adversaries including Islamic State after he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from neighboring Syria.

“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Trump said, using an acronym for the militant group that he has said is defeated. “We’ve knocked them silly.”

Trump Defends Syria Exit on First Visit to Troops in Combat Zone

Trump, who was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, was on the ground in Iraq for less than four hours. For security reasons, the White House didn’t let journalists accompanying the president report his visit until more than two hours after he landed. Trump left for Iraq on Christmas night and will return to Washington on Thursday to resume negotiations with Democrats over ending a partial government shutdown.

The trip follows upheaval over Trump’s national security policies after the president directed the withdrawal from Syria last week. He also ordered the Pentagon to withdraw 7,000 soldiers from Afghanistan, halving the number of American forces still engaged in the country’s longest war.

Trump Defends Syria Exit on First Visit to Troops in Combat Zone

“It’s time for us to start using our head,” Trump told reporters in Iraq. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of anymore by countries that use us” and our military, he said.

Mattis Quits

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned after the Syria order, which came against the advice of Trump’s top national security advisers. Trump told Mattis to leave the Pentagon by Jan. 2 after the retired Marine general released a resignation letter criticizing the president’s foreign policy.

Mattis didn’t accompany the president to Iraq. Trump was joined on Air Force One by a small entourage of senior aides including National Security Adviser John Bolton, senior adviser Stephen Miller, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and his social media director Dan Scavino. The first lady’s Chief of Staff Lindsay Reynolds and Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham also accompanied the couple.

Trump said he had concerns about making the trip because “what you had to go through.”

“I had concerns about the institution of the presidency. Not for myself personally,” he said. “I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you. But if you would have seen what we had to go through in the darkened plane with all the windows closed with no light anywhere -- pitch black.”

Air Force One left Washington about midnight and was blacked out as it took off and as it landed in Iraq.

“So did I have a concern? Yes I had a concern,” Trump said.

Trump was briefed in a canvas tent on the Iraqi air base by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, Bolton and other national security and military officials. He told troops in a dining hall later that “we have a fantastic plan.” Asked about it by reporters, Trump said, “You’ll see. I wish I could tell you what just happened.”

The White House said it could give Iraq’s new prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, only two hours’ notice for Trump’s visit, which turned out not to be enough time. But according to the Associated Press, a statement from the prime minister’s office cited “differences in points of view over the arrangements.”

After leaving Iraq, Trump greeted more American troops during a stopover at Ramstein Air Base in Germany early Thursday.

While Trump has focused his Middle East policy on countering what he considers Iran’s malign ambitions, critics have said the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will bolster Tehran’s influence there and in Iraq.

Trump Defends Syria Exit on First Visit to Troops in Combat Zone

Trump has faced criticism for not visiting troops in a combat area during his first 23 months in office. The president -- who received five deferments from serving in Vietnam, including one for bone spurs in his heels -- claims to have opposed the Iraq War, though he expressed support for the invasion on the Howard Stern radio show in 2002.

Barack Obama, who sought to end American military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan but largely failed, nonetheless made four visits to Afghanistan and one to Iraq during his eight years in office.

“The president needs to go to Afghanistan. He hasn’t visited our troops and he needs to do that,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who’s close to Trump, said Friday.

‘Very Busy’

Trump has attached less significance to visiting deployed troops.

“I will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary,” he told the Associated Press in October. “I’ve been very busy with everything that’s taking place here. I’m doing a lot of things. But it’s something I’d do. And do gladly.”

A month later, he hinted during a Thanksgiving teleconference with troops in Afghanistan that he might visit the country, telling them he’d see them back in the U.S. -- “or maybe I’ll even see you over there -- you never know what’s going to happen.”

Trump Defends Syria Exit on First Visit to Troops in Combat Zone

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Trump may have received his medical deferment from the Vietnam draft based on diagnoses of bone spurs from podiatrists who were renting property from his father, Fred Trump. The president has said he doesn’t remember who signed off on the medical documentation for his deferment.

Most American forces were withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, but thousands were later sent to help fight Islamic State’s expansion in the country. There were 5,200 troops in the country as of December 2017, the last time the Pentagon provided an update.

“Two years ago when I became president they were a very dominant group,” Trump said of Islamic State, which had actually suffered substantial territorial losses under Obama. “Today they’re not so dominant anymore.”

Trump made the Iraq trip after scrapping plans to spend Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, while the government is partially shut down -- a vacation he acknowledged would look bad while hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed or working without pay.

“I just didn’t want to go down and be there when other people are hurting,” Trump told reporters Tuesday at the White House, after speaking with troops around the world via teleconference. He said federal employees who are out of work have communicated to him that they support his effort to force Democrats to vote for funding to build a wall on the Mexican border.

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