WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday attempted to distance himself from the escalating chaos in northern Syria after his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region and lashed out at lawmakers critical of the decision, including during an extraordinary White House meeting that ended in acrimony.
In remarks in the Oval Office early in the day, Trump insisted that the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the Kurds was “over land that has nothing to do with us” and that the Kurds, who served as a U.S. ally against the Islamic State, were “no angels.”
"There's a lot of sand they can play with," Trump said as he sat alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whom the White House was hosting for a visit Wednesday. "It's possibly never going to be very stable."
Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria this month has led to a cascade of bipartisan criticism as worries grow that Turkey's military offensive will lead to the slaughter of Kurds and the release of Islamic State fighters jailed in the region.
Trump has vigorously defended the decision, but he has sent mixed signals by downplaying the region's importance to the United States while striking back at critics who say he gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "green light" to invade, arguing that he has been clear he will "destroy" Turkey's economy if the Turkish president does not back off the offensive.
Trump cited a letter he said he sent to Erdogan last week as evidence of his tough approach, although it did not deter the Turkish president from launching his attack.
"History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way," he wrote in a letter dated Oct. 9 and first reported by Fox News and confirmed by the White House. "It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" It concluded: "I will call you later."
Tensions between the president and lawmakers in both major U.S. parties continue to grow, and Democratic leaders walked out of a White House meeting Wednesday after what they described as an insulting and “nasty diatribe” by Trump during which he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a “third-rate politician.”
"He just couldn't handle it, so he kind of engaged in a meltdown," Pelosi told reporters, referring to the 354-60-4 bipartisan vote in the House earlier Wednesday that broadly condemned the troop withdrawal. Later, Pelosi added: "I think now we have to pray for this health, because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president."
The White House shot back at Pelosi; White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that Trump remained "measured, factual and decisive" and that the speaker's decision to leave the meeting was "baffling, but not surprising."
"She had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues," Grisham said. "While Democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country."
Later in the day, Trump tweeted a photo of the meeting taken shortly before Pelosi walked out, showing her standing with her finger pointed at Trump.
He accused her of having an "unhinged meltdown" of her own. Pelosi's allies said it instead showed her standing up to Trump's bullying, and the speaker posted it proudly on her own social media pages.
The Cabinet Room gathering become tense at multiple points, according to lawmakers and other officials briefed on the exchanges, as Trump fought with Democrats, lashed out against former members of his own administration and faced pushback even from Republicans.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., left the meeting with Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., followed shortly afterward.
According to Schumer and two other officials familiar with the remarks, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat from the released Islamic State fighters, saying America "didn't need to worry about terrorists 7,000 miles away."
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the House Republican Conference chairwoman, spoke up to remind Trump that the terrorists who killed more than 3,000 Americans in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “came from 7,000 miles away” themselves.
At another point, Schumer began making his case against Trump's decision, reading to the president comments from former defense secretary Jim Mattis on NBC's "Meet the Press" this week.
Mattis, whose resignation late last year centered on his disagreement with Trump on Syria, said the United States needed to keep up the pressure in the region, arguing that if it didn't, "then ISIS would resurge." (ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.)
Trump then interjected, calling Mattis the "world's most overrated general" and remarked that he wasn't "tough enough" and that Trump himself "captured" the Islamic State, according to three officials familiar with the comments who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private exchange.
He boasted that his timeline for capturing the Islamic State was much faster than what Mattis predicted, saying, "I captured them in one month."
Schumer and Pelosi also pressed Trump on his strategy for the region, and as Trump responded that his "plan is to keep the American people safe," Pelosi retorted: "That's not a plan. That's a goal."
As Democratic leaders walked out, Trump repeatedly called out, "see you at the polls," according to the officials.
"It was a meeting on one of the most serious crises affecting America in a while," Schumer said. "And instead of having a serious discussion, the president just threw out insults."
Earlier in the day, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., normally an ally of the president, continued his strong criticism of Trump's decision to pull troops from northern Syria and said his comments Wednesday "completely undercut" Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who are heading to Turkey to urge Erdogan to embrace a cease-fire and negotiate with the Kurds.
"I worry we will not have allies in the future against radical Islam, ISIS will reemerge, & Iran's rise in Syria will become a nightmare for Israel," Graham tweeted. "I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking."
At a later news conference with Mattarella, Trump dismissed Graham's concerns.
"Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next 1,000 years with thousands of soldiers and fighting other people's wars," he said. "I want to get out of the Middle East."
At the news conference, Trump also said the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK - a militant group that has regularly launched attacks inside Turkey in the name of Kurdish nationalism - "is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways" than the Islamic State.
"So it's a very semi-complicated - not too complicated if you're smart," Trump said. "But it's a semi-complicated problem, and I think it's a problem that we have a very nicely under control."
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have strongly disputed that characterization.
"Very clearly it was a decision by the administration which has led to what you're seeing," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party's 2012 presidential nominee. "This is a bit like the farmer locking the barn door after the horses left."
On Trump's comments that the Kurds were "no angels," Romney responded: "Oh, my goodness gracious. They are our friends, they have been our ally, and abandoning them was a very dark moment in American history."
In a significant show of disapproval for Trump's decision, the House adopted a resolution rebuking the president's move to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria that drew 129 members of Trump's own party, including all members of the House GOP leadership team, against him.
A few notable Republican lawmakers opposed it, including the leaders of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus; Rep. Tom Reed of New York, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus; and Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, the vice president's brother.
The House strategy is meant to force Trump to sign or veto legislation that scolded his own decision, though Senate Republican leaders have yet to publicly commit to taking up that bill.
"Alliances and values are important," Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said on the House floor. "Walking away from friends is a sad indication of policy that we don't want to support, we don't want to condone. Yes, we want America to be great, but we're also great because of our friends and our allies. Coalitions are not bad. Coalitions strengthen our public policy around the world."
The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.