“I do appreciate what the administration has done against Turkey through executive action, but more to follow,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon, after joining Trump for a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday. “I appreciate the phone calls yesterday with Erdogan, I think [Trump] reached out in a good way to let Turkey know they needed a cease-fire right now.”
“I blame Turkey, but I look to President Trump to fix this,” Graham added later on Fox News.
It was just a few days ago that Graham let loose on Trump as potentially “tired of fighting radical Islam” and compared him to one of the GOP’s key rivals, Barack Obama. The president has since embraced sanctions, engaged with Erdogan and dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence to Turkey to start cease-fire talks. Trump’s administration will spend the week shoring up Republican support.
But already, the GOP fury toward Trump is winding down — just the latest example of how eager Republicans are to avoid a breach with the president and a reminder of how difficult it will be for Democrats to win over Republicans in the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.
“Look, Obama didn’t have a strategy in Syria and unfortunately that’s what President Trump inherited. This was an untenable situation in a civil war,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t think the actual decision, itself, is surprising when you consider the alternatives.”
It appears impossible for the U.S. government to ever fully reverse the consequences of Trump’s abrupt decision: a bloody Turkish incursion that freed hundreds of Islamic State terrorists, a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government long opposed by the U.S., and a rise in Russian and Iranian influence in the region. But the White House is going all-out to win over Republicans, with the president hosting lawmakers from both parties at the White House on Wednesday and scheduling an all-senators briefing for later in the week.
When Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with House Republicans on Tuesday he explained the administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria’s northern border, according to Republicans who were present. Esper told lawmakers that Trump received a phone call from Turkey’s president that they were going to move ahead with their planned military offensive in “48 hours,” leaving the United States with few options.
But Esper struggled to answer some questions from members — including one about what the administration is doing to prevent the resurgence of ISIS — leaving a group of Republicans dissatisfied, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who plans to attend the White House meeting and has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s Syria move, will unveil a tougher sanctions package on Wednesday that has broad GOP support.
Republicans are still dissatisfied with the situation overseas, and they may pass a tough sanctions bill against Turkey or vote to formally recommend the Trump administration reverse its position. But they are also taking aim at Democrats and leaving out the personal references to Trump.
Last week, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called out the “betrayal of the Kurds” and said, “President Trump should rethink this decision immediately.” On Tuesday through a spokesman, he said he still “opposes the administration’s withdrawal from Northern Syria [but] supports sanctions targeting Turkey’s military, economy, and top officials.”
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) backs a House resolution urging the administration to reverse its position. But he made clear that it’s about policy, not Trump himself.
“It does not condemn the president. It condemns Turkey. It condemns the policy of withdrawing, but it does not condemn the president,” McCaul said. The resolution does not directly reference the president other than in its recap of recent events that led to the chaos in Syria.
McCaul and Graham also turned the criticism away from Republican infighting and onto Democrats. McCaul complained that Democrats are treating a nonbinding resolution as a direct rebuke to Trump and Graham urged them to do more than write a resolution — “not just criticizing President Trump but being for the idea that we need a residual force” in Syria.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saw an opportunity to hammer the Democratic presidential candidates. He noted Tuesday that 70 senators supported keeping a U.S. presence in Syria in a vote earlier this year — but not most of the party’s 2020 contenders.
“I hope those aspiring commanders in chief are asked to explain how they reconcile their criticism of the administration today with their votes just a few months ago. Maybe they’ll even be asked on the debate stage this evening,” McConnell said.
It was a shift from when McConnell directly pressed Trump to rethink his position last week and said Monday that he was “gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far.” By Tuesday, he was “heartened” that the administration was sending administration officials overseas.
“The initial reaction by many Republicans reflected what they’ve been saying to us behind the scenes for a long time,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “If they come back to town here, and they’re getting religion from the White House, it really is a sad commentary on the party.”
A group of Capitol Hill leaders — including McCaul and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise — will meet with Trump at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Syria and a potential legislative response. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been in contact with Graham, while House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is teaming up with McCaul on a package of sanctions that the Texas Republican described as “very targeted in scope.”
Pelosi on Tuesday confirmed that she spoke with Graham about the sanctions bill and about a bipartisan resolution that she said could come to a vote as soon as this week. But she expressed concern that some of Graham’s preferred language for the legislation may be “weaker” than when they spoke earlier.
“Hopefully he’s still where he was in the conversation that we had,” she told reporters.
Some Republicans are keeping their powder dry until after they huddle with the president.
“We’ve got a lot of conversations that are still ongoing,” Scalise said.
Senate Republicans were noncommittal on whether a sanctions bill by Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) or the nonbinding resolution will come to the floor.
“We’re probably going to be discussing a number of different options on the best approach there,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “As you know, there are very strong objections among our members to what’s happening in Syria.”
Indeed, there’s plenty of lingering discontent in the party.
The sanctions deployed under Trump’s executive authority are “not enough to counteract it, but given the events that have happened at this point, it’s probably the most you can do in the short term,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who did not mention the president directly on Tuesday. “There’s no way to undo some of the damages from it.”
Administration officials are planning to brief all senators Thursday. They are sure to face a lot of questions from the GOP, but it’s unclear how adversarial their GOP audience will be if the administration takes a tough approach toward Turkey, reassures senators on the Islamic State and commits to assisting the Kurds.
“With the sanctions that we’re proposing and other actions, I do support those. I am very cognizant of the fact that the Kurds worked so well with us,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who said last week she was “troubled” by the administration’s policies and urged them not to “abandon” the Kurds.
Despite the more measured response on Tuesday, some Republicans who have sought distance from Trump kept the heat on him Monday. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the administration’s efforts were not enough thus far.
“I disagree very strongly with the president’s decision,” Collins said Tuesday.
She was one of the few willing to still castigate the president directly, little more than a week after Trump’s decision inflamed most in his party.
Sarah Ferris and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.