President Donald Trump defended his decision to move US troops out of the way of a Turkish invasion of Syria last week in a press conference that was, even for him, baffling in the number of fabrications, historical errors, and outright weird shit that came from his mouth.
Trump, never one to moderate his speech in front of the press, was in rare form on Tuesday. As he stood next to Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House, he went from a monotone delivery as the pair read off their prepared statements to combative and energized as they took questions from the assembled reporters.
Earlier in the day, Trump made clear he had no regrets about letting the Turkish armed forces attack members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were the main US allies on the ground in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey's incursion has "nothing to do with us," he said, before insisting that the Kurds who make up the bulk of the SDF "are no angels."
He doubled down on that in response to the first question tossed his way:
They've been warring for many years. It's unnatural for us, but it's sort of natural for them. They fight and they fight long and they fight hard and they've been fighting Syria for a long time and on the border. That's the border with Syria. I say, why are we protecting Syria's land? [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is] not a friend of ours. Why are we protecting their land?
And Syria also has a relationship with the Kurds, who, by the way, are no angels, okay? Who is an angel? There aren't too many around.
But Syria has a relationship with the Kurds, so they'll come in for their border and they'll fight. They may bring partners in. They could bring Russia in, and I say welcome to it. Russia went into Afghanistan when it was the Soviet Union and it became Russia. It became a much smaller country because of Afghanistan.
You can overextend, you can do a lot of things. But frankly if Russia is going to help in protecting the Kurds, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Syria doesn't want Turkey to take its land. I can understand that. What does that have to do with the United States of America? Syria does have a relationship with the Kurds.
In that section alone, which, again, was in response to the first question, there's a lot to unpack. We have Trump pushing a narrative that implies that for those people over there, the brown ones, fighting is "natural" and there's nothing the more civilized countries of the world can do about it. He claims that Syria will be the protectors of the Kurds, even after the Kurds were fighting against Assad's rule and setting up a territory of their own until Trump's decision last week. And he said yet again that the Soviet Union only "became a much smaller country" because of its invasion of Afghanistan — despite that not really being the case at all.
But it quickly got even worse when Trump said this:
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.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not be any happier about those words coming from Trump. It's been his country's position for years that the Kurdish separatists represent a true threat to Turkey's security, scolding the US for its partnership with the branch that made up the SDF and warning of dire consequences. Now here's the president of the United States saying, Yes, this group is just as bad as the one that required a global coalition to stop it in its tracks.
The ongoing fighting between Turkey and the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers' Party, is a real concern — it has been since a ceasefire collapsed in 2015, even as Turkey has cracked down on Kurdish citizens and sympathizers in response. But the PKK has not carried out an attack in Europe for decades, or expanded into Afghanistan like ISIS has. And that doesn't cancel out the Kurds fighting in Syria's feelings of betrayal after an estimated 10,000 of them died in the war against ISIS.
Jonathan Karl, ABC's White House correspondent, asked: "You don't think the country's worried about ISIS? You mentioned earlier you think some of the countries might hate ISIS more than the United States."
Trump answered that because ISIS is 7,000 miles away, the US doesn't need to worry about it; it's totally fine if Russia handles it:
Absolutely. Russia hates ISIS as much as the United States does. Iran hates ISIS. I mean, we're fighting a war for Russia, we're fighting a war for Iran? You look at Syria. Syria hates ISIS. We're over there killing ISIS. Don't forget, we're 7,000 miles — so we're killing ISIS, we're 7,000 miles away. Russia is much closer. Iran is right there, Turkey is right there. They all hate ISIS. Turkey a little bit less so, but the others very much. Russia had a plane blown up by ISIS. Russia wants nothing to do with ISIS. Russia's tough. They can kill ISIS just as well, and they happen to be in their neighborhood.
All I'm saying is this, I'm not going to lose potentially thousands and tens of thousands of American soldiers fighting a war between Turkey and Syria. Syria's not our friend. Assad is not our friend. That's the way it goes.
(Rep. Liz Cheney reportedly pushed back on that comment in a meeting with Trump later on Wednesday, reminding him that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had come from people 7,000 miles away.)
And when asked about criticism at home from erstwhile supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump turned his full ire on the Republican senator, urging him to get back to running the Senate Judiciary Committee and, well, investigating conspiracy theories like "Spygate":
Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers fighting other people's wars. I want to get out of the Middle East.
Lindsey should focus on ... the do-nothing Democrats, as I call them. They're getting nothing done. They're not getting USMCA done between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. They're getting nothing done.
I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary. He ought to find out about what happened with Comey, what happened with McCabe, Lisa [Page], what happened with Peter Strzok, what happened with President Obama, what happened with Brennan. That's what Lindsey ought to focus on. That's what the people of South Carolina want him to focus on.
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. They've been fighting for a thousand years. Let them fight their own wars. The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home. I won an election based on that. Whether it's good or bad, that's the way it is. And if you look at this country, I'd be willing to bet anything, political instinct, that that's what the country wants.
As he was putting that out there, Graham was busy grilling Brian Hook, a senior State Department official, about Trump's decision. It did not go well for Hook.
Meanwhile, Trump continued on to claim that US troops have been in Syria for...a decade? (US forces were first deployed to Syria to take on ISIS in 2015.) And he then insisted that, because the US has the biggest military in the world, "We're the boss":
We were supposed to be in Syria for one month. That was 10 years ago. And we've been a police force. It's time to bring our soldiers back home. That's the way it is. We've had no soldiers injured or hurt. That's because I'm president. We're the boss. Just remember that. We have the most powerful military in the world by far.
But all of that pales in comparison to Trump's letter to Erdogan, released Wednesday afternoon, to the point that the baffling things he said in his press conference will likely be forgotten by tomorrow.
And the historians of the world wept.