On his 1,000th day in office, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat posed by the Islamic State fighters who have reportedly escaped since he abandoned the Kurds who were holding them and ordered U.S. troops to evacuate northern Syria. America, he insisted, doesn’t need to worry about terrorists who are “7,000 miles away.”
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the House Republican Conference chair, spoke up during a meeting at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to remind Trump that the terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, “came from 7,000 miles away,” according to three people familiar with the exchange.
Trump’s takeover of the GOP has been well documented, but this exchange offered a revealing window into the fundamental differences that remain between how Trump and traditional conservatives see the world.
Cheney didn’t say this, but she could have also pointed out to the president that the distance from the White House to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed, is 7,037 miles.
Saying Americans don’t need to worry about bad guys who are 7,000 miles away represents a repudiation not just of the Washington consensus that has existed since 9/11 — but since the Japanese sneak attack against Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
After the trauma of the Great War — that was before they had the sense to number them — the American people were leery of getting involved as the Axis powers marched across Europe and Asia. The “America First” movement of that era turned a blind eye to Adolf Hitler. After that approach failed and World War II still came, the Greatest Generation recognized how essential American leadership is to global stability.
Americans have always, collectively, had relatively short historical memories. And those who don’t remember the past are always doomed to repeat its mistakes. After the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, the electorate once again grew leery of deploying troops overseas. Trump, born a year after World War II ended, got elected in 2016 after promising to end the “endless wars” and embracing the “America First” slogan that had gone out of vogue three quarters of a century earlier.
On Wednesday, Trump pointed to his 2016 victory as an electoral mandate for his decision to retreat. “We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Trump said during one of several public appearances. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”
Trump clearly wants to wash his hands of the whole situation. “They know how to fight,” he said of the Kurdish fighters who fought side by side with U.S. forces to put down the Islamic State. “And by the way, they’re no angels.”
Trump added it’s “fine” by him that Russian troops are occupying positions held just days ago by Americans. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with,” the president told reporters. “Let them fight their own wars.”
Cheney’s comment in the Cabinet Room came after she voted for a resolution broadly condemning the troop withdrawal. It passed 354-60. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by other Democrats, walked out of the meeting about Syria after Trump called her a “third-grade politician.” But the meeting became tense at several other moments as well, Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis report.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, read aloud comments made by Jim Mattis on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend that “ISIS would resurge” if the United States doesn’t keep up the pressure in the region. Trump cut Schumer off to say that Mattis is the “world’s most overrated general” and that he wasn’t “tough enough.” Schumer and Pelosi also pressed Trump to explain his strategy for the region, per the Washington Post’s Seung Min and Mike. When he responded that his “plan is to keep the American people safe,” Pelosi retorted: “That’s not a plan. That’s a goal.” When Democratic leaders walked out, Trump repeatedly called out, “See you at the polls.”