President Donald Trump traveled to Iraq Christmas night, according to the White House, his first visit to U.S. troops in a war zone and a day after facing criticism for failing to spend time with any military personnel on Christmas Day.
Trump, who was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, had been derided by his critics for not visiting troops in a combat zone, particularly after he canceled a trip to an American military burial ground outside of Paris because of bad weather in November. Two days later, he skipped a Veterans Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
In Iraq on on Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don't think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.
"We're no longer the suckers, folks," Trump told American servicemen and women at a base in western Iraq. "We're respected again as a nation."
Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening.
During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials, but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that Trump visited the troops and senior military leadership “to thank them for their service, their success and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas.”
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The president also stopped at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on his way back for a second unannounced visit to troops and military leaders. He arrived back in the U.S. early Thursday morning.
Trump’s visit follows his controversial Syria announcement just before Christmas, a decision that his opponents said could endanger Kurdish allies who have been fighting ISIS there. Secretary of Defense James Mattis abruptly submitted his resignation in a letter that lambasted Trump’s worldview and treatment of allies.
Trump, in remarks to reporters on Wednesday, said he had “no plans at all” to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. About his decision to leave Syria, Trump said, "A lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking," according to Reuters.
"I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds," Trump told troops at al-Asad Airbase west of Baghdad. If ISIS were to have a resurgence, the troops in Iraq would be able to combat it, he said.
Troop said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to take out "any remnants of ISIS" left in Syria.
He said that he was in no hurry to name a replacement for Mattis, and that the planned acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan "could be there for a long time," Trump said.
"I think that a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. ... It's time for us to start using our head," Trump said.
The president and first lady got a standing ovation when they walked into a dining hall and greeted troops, took selfies and signed autographs.
The prime minister's office said "differences in points of view over the arrangements" prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi's office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.
Trump's Iraq visit appeared to have inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. The two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament both condemned the visit, with the head of the Islah bloc likening it to a "blatant violation of Iraq's sovereignty."
Trump had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm's way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. He told the AP in October that he "will do that at some point, but I don't think it's overly necessary."
Trump told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started getting out and forced him to postpone it.
Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in Washington due to the partial government shutdown over funding for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. He said he was prepared to wait for “whatever it takes” to get border security, Reuters reported.
The visit also came as The New York Times revived questions about Trump avoidance of the Vietnam War draft after finding the daughters of a doctor who diagnosed the bone spurs that kept him from combat. The daughters, who The New York Times pointed out are both Democrats and not Trump fans, suggested that he made the diagnosis as a favor to Trump’s father, Fred, though the doctor left no medical records with his family. The White House has not responded to written questions.
Last year, Trump visited wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.