White House

Trump on defense as impeachment gains support, Syria decision gets friendly fire

Expert: Removing U.S. troops as buffer could lead to ‘massacre’ of Kurds by Turkish forces

President Donald Trump cedes the lectern to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With more and more Americans supporting his impeachment and Republican lawmakers slamming his decision to remove U.S. protection of Kurds in Syria, President Donald Trump is in a defensive crouch.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday shows that a clear majority (58 percent) of those surveyed support House Democrats’ decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. That is up from 39 percent in a Post-ABC News poll conducted in May. And that figure is larger than the 47 percent of those who responded to a late-September CNN-SSRS poll who say they favor the inquiry.

[McConnell says he can’t completely prevent an impeachment trial]

Among independents, who could help decide whether Trump can hold onto key swing states next November, 57 percent support the impeachment investigation, according to the Post-Schar poll. The same survey showed that the pro-impeachment bloc has grown among all three political affiliations, when compared with the Post-ABC survey from May: 25 percent more of Democrats are now in favor, 21 percent more Republicans and 20 percent more independents.

Those figures appear to show that the White House, Trump campaign and the president’s surrogates are losing the messaging battle around Democrats’ inquiry, which is focused on his and his team’s pressing Ukraine’s new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden.

The president’s strategy has been to withhold information from House Democrats while rhetorically attacking them, the intelligence community whistleblower who prompted the inquiry and even Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney, who has criticized Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

[Impeachment news roundup: Oct. 8]

Rarely one to divert from the brash tactics he employed as a New York real estate developer, Trump on Tuesday stuck to his plan.

During his usual morning “executive time” in the White House residence, Trump defended his administration’s decision to block Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from testifying before a House panel by claiming in a series of tweets that he would have been “testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s [sic] rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see.”

The president also wrote that a text message Sondland sent to a colleague last month about Trump’s desires for U.S.-Ukrainian relations to include Kiev investigating the Bidens pointed out that Trump did not want any quid pro quo discussed by American officials. “That says it ALL!” Trump tweeted.

But the president’s Tuesday tweet omits key facts, which are reflected in text messages turned over to House Democrats by Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine. Volker resigned after details of the call with the Ukrainian leader were made public.

Those messages show U.S. diplomats discussing the president’s unwillingness to grant Zelenskiy an Oval Office visit he greatly desired unless Zelenskiy looked into the Bidens. In one, Bill Taylor, a senior U.S. diplomat in Kiev, drew a direct line between Zelenskiy’s White House meeting request and a nearly $400 million military aide package that Trump himself froze.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote in a Sept. 1 text message to Sondland. Sondland responded: “Call me.” One week later, Taylor offered clues about the contents of that call, and it suggests a quid pro quo was on the table.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor told Sondland.

Trump and his team deny the aid package was directly linked to the president’s request for Zelenskiy to “do us a favor” by looking into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and his father’s push — along with other Western governments — to oust a prosecutor there, who was not investigating an energy firm at which Hunter Biden was employed. But they do not deny that Trump himself held up the aid before releasing it, claiming he was worried about “corruption” in Ukraine.

But Trump’s defensive stance is not limited to the impeachment matter.

He also is still trying to explain his decision to remove U.S. forces from northern Syria, who have served as a protective shield for U.S.-allied Kurdish forces there in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. Key congressional Republicans have slammed Trump’s sudden decision, about which they got no heads up.

“It is never wise to abandon an ally who has sacrificed on your behalf,” tweeted Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Foreign Relations Committee member and key Trump ally. “It is never wise to repeat the mistakes of your predecessor. … It is never wise to outsource American national security to Turkey or any other nation.”

GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called the decision a “retreat,” adding in a statement that Trump “needs to know that this bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children.”

“I hope the president will listen to his generals and reconsider,” Sasse, a Senate Intelligence Committee member, said.

[Trump aide calls drug price deal possible if impeachment fades]

Amid the rare wave of Republican criticism, Trump on Tuesday tried to justify leaving the Kurds at the will of Turkish forces that Republicans and regional experts expect to soon cross into Syrian territory and engage them.

“In no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” Trump tweeted, then appeared to cast his decision as something of a reward for Egyptian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Likewise our relationship with Turkey, a NATO and Trading partner, has been very good,” he wrote, adding that Erdogan’s government “understands” that any “unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency.”

Despite their disagreeing over his decision to remove the U.S. troops, his after-the-decision warnings to Ankara echoed Republican lawmakers.

“And before Turkey butchers innocent Kurds, Erdogan should carefully consider his privileged status as a NATO member,” Sasse said Monday. “The American people don’t partner with genocidal regimes.”

But experts say that is just what might be about to happen in northern Syria.

“Kurdish leaders have expressed shock at the decision. Assurances of U.S. support convinced [them] to agree to remove their defenses and withdraw heavy weaponry from the border zone,” said Will Todman of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They now lie vulnerable to a Turkish attack and have predicted a ‘massacre,’” he added, “citing the ‘grave atrocities and human rights abuses’ that occurred in Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria after Turkey invaded in 2018 as a sign of what is to come.”

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