Politics

Amid Crises, Trump Slips Out of Washington to Visit Troops in Iraq

President had caught flack for opting against a warzone visit in first 23 months in office

President Trump quietly left Joint Base Andrews early Wednesday morning on Air Force One to make his first visit as commander in chief to U.S. troops deployed in a combat zone. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Amid a government shutdown and multiple crises at home, President Donald Trump slid out of the White House early Wednesday morning for a holiday season trip to visit troops in Iraq.

Trump faced bipartisan criticism for not visiting any U.S. forces deployed in combat zones since he took office in January 2017. There were rumors last week that he might travel to Iraq or Afghanistan during what had been planned as a 16-day holiday season vacation at his South Florida resort, but White Houses, for security reasons, keep such trips under wraps.

As a candidate, businessman and reality television host, Trump railed against the war in Iraq. He claimed it wasted American dollars and lives, saying the $2.4 trillion two administrations spent there could have been better spent restoring infrastructure at home. Three days ago, Trump tweeted a quote from GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky saying the two agree the Iraq war was the “biggest foreign policy disaster of the last several decades.”

As commander in chief, he has praised U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria for, in his view, substantially weakening the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.

First Lady Melania Trump accompanied her husband to Iraq after returning from his South Florida resort earlier this week to spend Christmas with him at the White House after he decided to stay in Washington due to the partial shutdown. Reuters first published photos around 2 p.m. Wednesday of the first couple at Al Asasd Air Base in western Iraq posing with American troops.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed the trip in a tweet, writing the Trumps made the lengthy journey to “visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas.”

Pool reporters traveling with Trump did not immediately send reports of his arrival and comments he made to troops at the base. But a Reuters scribe there tweeted the president defended his Syria withdrawal decision, saying: “Our presence in Syria was not open ended and it was never intended to be permanent.”

Trump on Wednesday again signaled he is in the partial government shutdown for the long haul, telling reporters traveling with him in Iraq he is willing to do “whatever it takes.”

“We’re going to have a wall. We’re going to have safety,” he said, according to a Bloomberg reporter in Western Iraq with him. Notably, Trump declined to say whether he might accept $2 billion for his border barrier to re-open part of the federal government.

Trump also defended his foreign policy approach, saying “it’s time for us to start using our head,” adding the United States can still “hit [ISIS] so fast and hard they really won't know what the hell happened.”

The trip came one day after Trump appeared before cameras in the Oval Office making Christmas Day calls to deployed troops, and two days after a daylong series of tweets attacking Democrats, the Federal Reserve and political enemies that the Washington Post described in a news article as a “storm of Yuletide gloom.

The commander in chief touched down in Iraq on the fifth day of a partial government shutdown, a crisis created by his demand for $5 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall or “artistically designed steel slats.” Even as his chief negotiators make offers to top Democrats for barriers in amounts less than half that, the president himself has continued to muddy the waters and leave Democratic leaders scratching their heads about just how the two sides can find agreement.

[Three Things to Watch as Partial Government Shutdown Plods On]

The troop visit also comes after perhaps the most tumultuous week of his presidency. Not only did he reverse himself by blocking a Senate-passed stopgap spending measure that would have kept nine Cabinet agencies and other offices running, he also unilaterally decided to withdraw all American forces from Syria during a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart.

That prompted a frustrated Defense Secretary James Mattis to hand in his resignation letter, a document the Pentagon released and in which he put on display his disgust with Trump’s disdain for allies and U.S. leadership around the globe. Trump did not initially grasp its seriousness, but decided Saturday to oust Mattis on Jan. 1 rather than in late February, as he grew frustrated by news coverage of the retired Marine Corps general’s reasons for leaving.

And then there is Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia election meddling probe and state-level probes of his business dealings and former associates in New York. Legal experts say court documents released in recent weeks indicate federal and state prosecutors are moving closer and closer to “Individual-1,” legal code for the president.

“Hey republicans your guy is having a moment let us know if you come up w a plan to fix,” Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted on Dec. 24, amid the flurry of angry and frustrated Trump tweets. “The next President should not be emotionally fragile.”

The first indications Air Force One had left Joint Base Andrews outside Washington before sunrise came from a Twitter account that monitors civilian and military aircraft movements.

[Christmas Eve Tidings: Dems and Trump Trade Barbs, No Progress on Shutdown]

“Now, I'm not saying Trump is currently heading to the Middle East to visit troops. BUT…” wrote the UK-based account @CivMilAir around 9 a.m. (ET). “There's been some interesting aircraft movements the last couple of days. Some I've already tweeted... And a VC-25A has been reported over the UK earlier today.”

VC-25 is the U.S. Air Force’s designation for the Boeing 747s that compose the Air Force One fleet.

Then Flickr user Alan Meloy posted a picture of a large aircraft with the same paint scheme as the executive aircraft over the United Kingdom with this caption: “'RCH358' VC-25 USAF - over Yorkshire - taken from Chapeltown South Yorks Boxing Day 2018 4713.”

As reporters at the White House began to remark how quiet things were amid a partial government shutdown and multiple crises involving Trump, they were greeted by a dark West Wing suite that is home to the offices of Communications Director Bill Shine and Sanders.

“I haven’t seen anyone up there all day,” said a U.S. Secret Service agent posted in a nearby hallway. “It’s been really quiet, guys.”

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