Graham: Trump still wants to leave Syria, but will reevaluate plan to attack ISIS

Posted at 8:30 PM, Dec 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-30 22:30:32-05

(CNN) — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested Sunday President Donald Trump now better understands the stakes in Syria and has agreed to reevaluate, for now, his plans to immediately withdraw all US troops from the country.

Still, Graham said, Trump remains committed to bringing American servicemen and women home, even as he continues to weigh the greater regional dynamics. He told CNN later in the day the President had not reversed his Syria orders.

“After discussions with the President and (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph) Dunford, I never felt better about where we are headed. I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” the South Carolina Republican told reporters at the White House, where he’d just sat for lunch with the President. “But the goal has always been the same. To be able to leave Syria and make sure ISIS never comes back.”

He added later: “I think we’re in a pause situation where we are reevaluating what’s the best way to achieve the President’s objective of having people pay more and do more.”

Speaking to CNN’s Dana Bash after his appearance in the White House driveway, Graham said he didn’t mean to suggest that Trump is pausing troop withdrawal altogether.

“He has not reversed his decision” to withdraw troops from Syria, Graham said. “The pause is to assess the effects of the conditions on the ground.”

The White House did not clarify whether Trump had come to a new determination about the Syria withdrawal plans, which drew widespread criticism when they were first announced earlier this month. National security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to travel to Israel and Turkey early in the new year to discuss the decision with partners in the region.

Graham said that during the President’s surprise trip to Iraq last week, commanders on the ground informed Trump that ISIS is not “completely destroyed,” which he said was an “eye-opening” experience for the commander in chief.

“The President assured me he is going to make sure he gets the job done, and I assured him that nobody has done more to defeat ISIS than he has. We are inside the 10-yard line,” Graham told reporters at the White House.

Graham, who was a harsh critic of Trump’s plans to bring home US troops from Syria when the decision was announced earlier in December, said he departed his meal Sunday feeling cheered.

“I feel better about Syria than I felt before I had lunch. The President is taking this really seriously. The trip to Iraq was well timed,” he said.

Yet during that trip, his first to a US war zone, Trump reinforced his Syria decision and said the US would no longer be viewed as “suckers” for protecting other nations.

“They said again recently, ‘Could we have more time?’ ” Trump said of top military officials. “I said, ‘Nope. You can’t have any more time. You’ve got enough time.’ We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly.”

Earlier in the day, Graham said that withdrawing US troops from Syria could directly result in the deaths of Kurdish people there.

“There are three things important for this country. Number one, make sure that ISIS never comes back in Syria,” Graham said to CNN’s Bash on “State of the Union.” “We need to keep our troops there. They’re inside the ten-yard line in defeating ISIS, but we’re not there yet. If we leave now, the Kurds are going to get slaughtered.”

“How are you going to convince President Trump to do that?” Bash asked.

“I’m going to talk to him at lunch,” Graham replied.

Trump’s decision earlier this month to order his staff to execute the “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of US military from Syria was met with harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle. Hours after the announcement, Graham decried the move as a “disaster” and “a stain on the honor of the United States.”

On Sunday, he warned against the transfer of security in Syria from the US to Russian and Turkish forces, a change that could leave the Syrian Kurds, whom the United States has assisted and armed, at risk from both ISIS and Turkey.

“I’m asking the President to make sure that we have troops there to protect us. Don’t outsource our national security to some foreign power,” Graham told CNN earlier on Sunday. “If we leave now the Kurds will get in a fight with Turkey, they could get slaughtered. Who would help you in the future?”

“And this is something you’re going to tell the President today?” Bash asked.

“Yeah, I’m going to ask the President to do something President Obama would never do: reconsider,” Graham replied.

This story has been updated to add further comments by Sen. Graham.