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Trump’s Syria decision tests the bounds of Republican support as he demands solidarity on impeachment

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/10/2019 Philip Rucker, Robert Costa
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President Trump’s decision to suddenly withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria has angered evangelical Christian leaders and Republican hawks, cleaving his political coalition at the very moment he is trying to fortify his standing to survive the intensifying impeachment inquiry in Congress.

Instead of enjoying uncontested GOP support as he plunges into a constitutional showdown with House Democrats and prepares for a bruising reelection campaign, Trump is now fighting on two fronts within his party.

The president simultaneously has been laboring to silence dissent over his conduct in pressing Ukraine to investigate a domestic political rival and over his Syria decision — a move critics blame for Wednesday’s Turkish offensive.

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The past few days have tested the bounds of Trump’s Republican support at an unusually frenzied political crossroads that has brought uncertainty for elected officials. While GOP lawmakers have been skittish about directly engaging the subject at the heart of the impeachment debate — the president’s conduct with his Ukrainian counterpart — many have felt free to loudly condemn Trump’s Syria decision, underscoring the fluidity within GOP ranks.

Consider Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most loyal defenders, whose Twitter feed has neatly illustrated this dynamic this week. In the span of 15 hours, he parroted Trump’s points by accusing House Democrats of “destroying” the Constitution with their impeachment proceedings and condemned the Trump administration for having “shamelessly abandoned” Kurdish allies. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS,” Graham added.

Or consider Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of her party’s leadership, who backed up the president last week by tweeting that the impeachment probe was “starting to seem like a political set up.” On Wednesday, she issued a scorching statement: “President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria is having sickening and predictable consequences.”

Liz Cheney et al. posing for the camera: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) enters a news conference with fellow Republican leaders on Capitol Hill on May 8, 2019. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) enters a news conference with fellow Republican leaders on Capitol Hill on May 8, 2019.

Although there is always a risk in breaking with a president who demands absolute loyalty from within his party, many Republicans feel far safer doing so on more distant issues of foreign policy, where Trump often finds himself outside of his party’s historic positioning, such as Syria, than on matters that personally affect Trump, such as impeachment, according to party officials and strategists.

“The complexity with Syria, Turkey and the Kurds is beyond the normal person’s understanding,” former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R) said. “It’s one of those issues that seems to be important, but no one understands the complexities. All you hear is, ‘Trump might have made a mistake there,’ but not much more than that.”

The Syria issue, McCrory said, is “not personal for most Trump supporters. It’s a foreign policy disagreement.”

Michael Steel, a former GOP House leadership adviser, explained that, over the past three years, lawmakers have been “testing the boundaries of the president’s tolerance for dissent.”

On policy disagreements, he said, “You see a great deal more latitude. You don’t see angry tweet storms about Republicans who voted for sanctions on Russia. The disagreement over Syria has stayed in that bucket.”

Trump defended his move to pull out of the Syrian conflict during a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House on Wednesday. He argued that Americans had long tired of the “endless wars” overseas and that “eventually somebody was going to have to make the decision.”

Recounting a past visit to watch the bodies of fallen soldiers returned to the United States, the president recalled that family members sometimes “run to the coffin. They’ll break through military barriers, they’ll run to the coffin and jump on top of the coffin, crying, mothers and wives, crying desperately. And this is on these endless wars that just never stop.”

Donald Trump et al. posing for the camera: President Trump speaks during a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 9, 2019. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump speaks during a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 9, 2019.

Trump has largely shrugged off complaints this week from top allies, including prominent evangelical Christians, about his Syria decision, refraining — at least so far — from the Twitter taunts and put-downs with which he usually responds to criticism. Asked about Graham’s comments, Trump was uncharacteristically restrained.

“Lindsey and I feel differently,” the president said. “I think Lindsey would like to stay there for the next 200 years and maybe add a couple hundred thousand people every place, but I disagree with Lindsey on that.”

Trump’s advisers said his defiance is fueled by his own confidence that most Republican voters are far more focused on the impeachment debate than foreign policy, and he believes many in his base share his noninterventionist instincts.

Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist based in Tennessee, said that conservative activists are abuzz over the Trump-versus-House Democrats impeachment skirmish. “I have talked to nobody in the grass-roots world, GOP-wise, that brought up Syria,” Saltsman said. “I’ve talked to evangelical leaders who have. [But] to the base electorate right now, impeachment is so loud that Syria doesn’t register yet.”

Evangelical leaders have been outspoken about the Syria withdrawal, both because Christians there fear a Turkish takeover and out of fear that instability or a power vacuum in the region could result in Iran gaining influence and ultimately threatening Israel.

“Evangelicals see this decision as a punch to the gut, but punches to the gut don’t always have a lasting effect,” said David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He said the backlash over Syria amounts to “a mini crisis” for the White House, but added, “The president has done so much for evangelicals, in terms of judges and legislation, that this Syria decision isn’t going to be the death knell.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), who has a deep following on the religious right, tweeted, “I generally support @POTUS on foreign policy & don’t want our troops fighting other nations’ wars, but a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them.”

Donald Trump, Mike Pence are posing for a picture: President Trump listens as Vice President Pence speaks at a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 8, 2019. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump listens as Vice President Pence speaks at a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 8, 2019.

Still, Trump, as well as Vice President Pence and senior adviser Jared Kushner, have so assiduously cultivated relationships with evangelical leaders that some of them have his back regardless. For example, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas evangelical pastor and televangelist, said the president sent him a “deeply appreciated handwritten letter” to thank him for his supportive words on TV.

“He knows we’re out there supporting him and reminding people on our side that they shouldn’t be surprised that the president who campaigned on ending wars wants to end wars,” Jeffress said.

On impeachment, Republican lawmakers are more in line with Trump, publicly at least, than on Syria. Still, new cracks are emerging. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a seasoned party leader regarded for his caution and keen political instincts, told the Columbus Dispatch that it is “not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent.”

Portman joins Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine in expressing varying degrees of concern about Trump’s conduct.

Scott Reed, chief political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Republican officials were taking things “day-to-day” because information continues to be revealed at a fast clip. “Everybody is in a wait-and-see position,” he said of members of Congress.

Public polling shows an increase in support for impeachment, including a Washington Post-Schar School survey released this week that measured support for opening the impeachment inquiry at 58 percent among all Americans. Three in 10 Republicans support it as well.

Former Republican congressman Charlie Dent said his friends in the House are making impeachment calculations based on base politics.

“I think members will stick with the president as long as the base sticks with them,” Dent said. “I think it’s a mistake, honestly. They could actually affect opinions of the base if more of them spoke up. It’s just a function of leadership.”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump attends a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 9, 2019 © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump attends a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 9, 2019

There is an acknowledgment inside some quarters of the West Wing that Trump cannot ignore the skittishness of Republicans. Trump is working intently to rouse his political base to his side. Following discussions at the White House last month about the imperative to “get Trump out into the country,” as one White House official put it, the president scheduled campaign rallies for this Thursday in Minnesota and Friday in Louisiana. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

In the coming weeks, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is planning to help Trump begin a quiet charm offensive with congressional Republicans, hosting private dinners and meetings, gatherings at Camp David and other ways of expressing appreciation for their support, according to three Trump advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly.

“The administration looks forward to continued engagement with members about many real issues facing the American people and sadly, even the Democrats’ shameful politically motivated ones like this fake impeachment,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in an email.

Pence, meanwhile, traveled Wednesday to the Midwest to try to build pressure on Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. “I came to Iowa today to turn up the heat,” Pence said at an event in Waukee.

“The truth is, and we all know it, Democrats have been spending all their time on endless investigations and partisan impeachment,” Pence said. “But enough is enough. The American people deserve better.”

At the vice president’s side there was Ernst, who faces a tough reelection fight next year and recently was confronted by a constituent who was frustrated about her unwillingness to stand up against Trump.

Ernst was all smiles as she greeted Iowans with Pence on a farm surrounded by fields of corn, leaving no doubt that she fully embraces the Trump administration.

She later stood next to Pence before reporters and said she was “glad” to join him.

philip.rucker@washpost.com

robert.costa@washpost.com

Costa reported from Waukee, Iowa.

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