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Trumps Visit Troops in Iraq. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 15:00   ET



FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They believe the United States should leave. They have said that. The Assad government has said that as well.

So, certainly, this is something that they will really like to hear, and certainly something that they have been wanting to hear for a very long time, because it does open a lot of doors for them in Syria, Ryan.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Frederik Pleitgen live from Moscow with the view there, Fred, thank you.

And we're now to the top of the hour. I'm Ryan Nobles. You are watching CNN.

And we begin with breaking news. President Trump has made his first ever visit to a combat zone, along with the first lady. And as he talks to troops in Iraq, he's reportedly defending his decision to withdraw the U.S. from Syria. He also said that there are no plans for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq at all.

You will recall the president faced criticism in November for not making a war zone visit, which other presidents have done in the past. Also remember, this comes during a partial government shutdown, where the negotiations are ongoing.

Let's go now to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Also here, CNN's Sarah Westwood. She is at the White House with the view there.

Barbara, let's begin with you.

Just tell us what you're hearing from the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Ryan, this visit would in fact have been in the works for some time. We have chatted about that.

This is something that involves the maximum amount of presidential security, and, of course, security always high for a president, but to travel to a war zone, the Secret Service and the U.S. military would have been working together for several weeks to actually plan this out to secure the airspace as he entered Iraq, to ensure that there is secure communications, complete lockdown of security for him, the first lady and the entire traveling party, to make sure airspace is monitored as they enter into that airspace and as they leave.

So, this is a complex event. The Secret Service, the U.S. military obviously know how to do it. They did it for President George W. Bush, for President Obama any number of times that they visited both Iraq and Afghanistan.

It comes in an interesting time for the president. But, nonetheless, he has, according to Reuters, set out a couple of interesting facts, saying that there are no plans to pull out of Iraq. There are 5,200 U.S. troops there. And that is going to be of some reassurance to Iraqi government officials.

We're not at all clear that he saw any Iraqi government officials during his visit there. He did speak to some commanders on the ground. The level of briefings that he got, we don't know how much he was actually told, what he asked. The visit lasted about three hours.

He spoke to the troops for about 20 minutes, we are told. But this also comes as the Pentagon is under orders to withdraw some 2,000 -- 2,600 U.S. troops across the border in Syria. Now, the president is saying that he might use some of those -- some troops in Iraq to stage missions in Syria, but that he definitely wants all U.S. ground troops out of that country -- Ryan.

NOBLES: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Let's now go to Sarah Westwood.

And, Sarah, usually, these trips by presidents to war zones are, to a certain extent, feel-good missions about kind of rallying the troops, but President Trump has actually gone there and defended himself from a political perspective. He's talked about the decision to pull out of Syria, like Barbara talked about, and he's also talking about the government shutdown.

Now, give us the view there from the White House.


And it's certainly an interesting backdrop for the president to be defending his decision to withdraw the troops from Syria, and because recall that, during the 2016 campaign, President Trump went after his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for his decision to withdraw the troops from Iraq in 2011, claiming that, because of that decision, Obama was the founder of ISIS.

That was a refrain of his campaign. But, nonetheless, the president is, as you mentioned, according to Reuters, defending his decision to remove those troops in Syria, saying anything that needs to be done in Syria could perhaps be done from the bases in Iraq.

This is an unconventional president, as you know, but this trip has unfolded in a really conventional way. Former Presidents Bush and Obama both traveled several times to the Middle Eastern region. And often, when they did do so, it was under wraps until they arrived, just as Trump's trip was. Now, obviously, back home, the president has a lot going on, but certainly this is going to change the conversation for the next several days, Ryan.

NOBLES: All right, Sarah Westwood.

And, Barbara, I just want to go back to you for one minute, because you told us at the top of last hour, before we had gotten any significant reporting, that you -- your insight into this was that perhaps these troops in Iraq were a key, a symbol for the president, because it meant that there was going to be an additional burden for these Iraqi troops because he was calling for this pullout in Syria.

And that's exactly essentially what the president said, that he has no plans to pull out of Iraq. And, in fact, this will become one of the most important military positions for the United States.


Essentially, Barbara, talk us through that. Why does Iraq take on -- I mean, Iraq was already important, but if we decide to move -- pull these troops out of Syria, why does that become even more important?

STARR: Well, I think it goes back to why the U.S. military was sent into Iraq in the first place back in 2014.

ISIS was on the move in Iraq, was going to start being on the move in Syria. And, in fact, ISIS seriously at that time posed a dire threat to Baghdad, to the security of Baghdad. The U.S. could not let Baghdad fall to ISIS militants, so they sent U.S. troops in. And it has been a slog ever sent through Iraq and through a good deal of Syria to push ISIS out.

You have still several hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIS adherents in Syria, mainly in the east. And that, of course, is very close to the Iraqi border, Iraq lying just to the east of Syria. So they are going to want to make sure that they don't see that bleed-over of ISIS back into Iraq and still try and do what they can.

The military will want to do what it can through airstrikes or counterterrorism, special operations missions, to go after ISIS remnants inside Syria.

By the day, by the week, that will become a very difficult proposition. There are indications that Syrian regime forces, Russian forces and Turkish forces already have their designs on significant amounts of territory in Syria where the U.S. has been operating.

So this may be wishful thinking. And it may be very difficult at this point. This has been the big concern of U.S. commanders. They felt they were really were close to defeating ISIS in Syria, but they didn't feel that they had actually accomplished that yet.

Nobody wanted the forever war in Syria. But the question is, was the withdrawal too precipitous? Should U.S. troops have stayed longer? Would it have been worth it to have them stay longer and not just suddenly pull out of the country, Ryan?

NOBLES: OK, Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon, Sarah Westwood live at the White House, thank you both for your reporting.

Let's now talk to some folks with some military insight on all of this.

Joining me now, two CNN military analysts, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, let's start with you.

I mean, this is a difficult time for troops in a war zone. They're away from their families. It's -- they're not able to celebrate the holidays in perhaps the fashion that they would like to.

What does it mean to be able to see their commander in chief?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It's a big deal, and it's a healthy shot in the arm.

General Hertling can probably speak to this better than me, having been deployed to Iraq himself in combat. But any time the commander in chief comes to visit and actually expresses thanks for your service, for your sacrifice, kind of shows that he -- that he's there in solidarity with you and what you're doing over there, that means a lot.

It also means a lot to their families back home, because they're missing out on those loved ones as well. And they get to see that, in the in the person of the president, the United States of America is behind their husbands, their wives, their brothers, their sisters.

NOBLES: General, talk about that. Having been to Iraq, what will it mean for these soldiers to see President Trump up close and personal?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it is critically important. As Adam Kirby just said, it's always nice to see your commander in chief, part of your chain of command.

I was there in 2003 when President Bush surprised everyone on Thanksgiving and arrived. In fact, he showed up in Air Force One at Baghdad International Airport. And then later on, I was there again in 2007, when President Obama came -- 2007-2008, when I was in Northern Iraq.

We didn't get to see him that time. He was more out in the western provinces, which is where President Trump is right now. That's critically important, Ryan. The president went to Al Asad Air Base. That's in Anbar province in the western part of Iraq.

And that air base has been instrumental in providing support along the Syrian border, as Barbara Starr just said. There are bases of U.S. forces helping train Iraqis and advising Iraqis at Qaim, which is along the border with Syria, and another base in Anbar province. Asad is the place that provides support to that. So the president going there is actually critically important, for him to say what he said, because those forces in Western Iraq are actually contributing not only to the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but also the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Here's something else that's important. Right now, about a year ago, the former prime minister of Iraq said that ISIS was defeated. The current prime minister of Iraq, Abdul-Mahdi, says that he knows that's not true, that they have gone to ground all along the Euphrates and Tigris River Valleys.

Where Al Asad Air Base is, is right along that Euphrates River. So this is critically important. ISIS is still there, but they have gone to ground.

The other thing that's interesting is the president of Iraq, Barham Salih, who's happens to be a good friend of mine, is a Kurd. So with him hearing this news the other day that the president is pulling out of Syria, and affecting his Kurdish brothers, even though they're in a different country, is critically important.


There's a mixed review inside of the Iraqi government as to whether or not American forces should stay. In fact, just two weeks ago, at the end of November, they had -- or more than that -- I'm sorry -- at the end of November, they had a vote inside the Iraqi Parliament that was narrowly defeated to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq.

So, it's not only time to visit troops, but, as Barbara Starr also mentioned, this is the time to deal with the Iraqi government to see how they feel about all the issues, with what the United States is doing in the fight against ISIS and the support for allies in both Iraq and Syria.

NOBLES: And so, to that point, General, obviously, the president is there shaking hands, posing for selfies with the troops. How important is it for him, A, to privately meet with these generals who are now going to be faced with significant new challenges because of this Syria pullout, and to meet with those Iraqi government officials to at least take their temperature to see how they view this decision?

HERTLING: It is critically important.

Truthfully, Ryan, the photographs with the troops are the morale builders. Having a meal with them at Christmas, for the troops to see the president is all important for morale. But the most important troop -- the most important part -- excuse me -- of any presidential visit is getting information, firsthand information from the commanders, the U.S. and the coalition commanders on the ground.

And the other thing that's important is talking to the Iraqi government.

NOBLES: All right, excellent perspective from both of you gentlemen. Lieutenant General Hertling, Admiral Kirby, thank you so much for being here.

And we're going to have much more on this breaking news in a moment. Stay here.



NOBLES: And back now to our breaking news, President Trump and the first lady making a surprise trip to Iraq to visit troops.

The trip comes as President Trump has been criticized for not visiting a war zone, like his predecessors had by this point in their presidencies.

Here to discuss, Margaret Talev. She's a CNN political analyst and senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News. And Elise Labott, CNN global affairs correspondent.

Elise, the president has taken some heat because of this decision to pull troops out of Syria, not just from Democrats, but from Republicans as well.

Today, he broke a little bit of news, because he said that he's sticking by decisions to keep troops in Iraq. And he actually said that these troops in Iraq could help the fact -- that this could change the situation by pulling troops out of Syria.

Now, optics aside, does this trip give the president a chance to reassert the foreign policy position on the world stage that the U.S. has?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it does. But I don't think it's the foreign policy position that allies in the region want to hear.

This was a decision that was not made in consultation with allies. There was no reassurance that it was going to be done in a way that would help allies prepare for what comes after.

There's been a lot of concern that, not just in Syria, but also in Iraq, ISIS is -- still has remnants that can reconstitute and make it even more dangerous. The situation in Iraq is still very unstable with the government there.

And I think that President Trump certainly is delivering on his campaign pledges to withdraw U.S. troops out of war. But in terms of U.S. leadership, America being a reliable ally, I don't think this is the foreign policy position that the allies are looking for right now.

NOBLES: And still talking about the optics, Margaret, President Trump fancies himself a president that really appreciates veterans. He often touts his support of the military, but he did receive quite a bit of criticism for not visiting Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day. He, of course, skipped a World War I ceremony in Paris last month

because of concerns about his travel party going through the rain. Now, the president did hint last month that this sort of trip was coming. Do you think he was under pressure, given those missteps? Or was this something that he felt was a priority at this time?

TALEV: Well, Ryan, I do think that some of those missteps, both abroad and here back at Arlington, focused the president's attention the fact that this was a problem.

And we have seen in some military polling in the last few months, even prior to Jim Mattis,' resignation and all that's followed, some waning support, that sort of gap between support and opposition for the president narrowing, so that, inside the military, he's less popular than he was when he took office.

But I do think that this visit was in the planning stages for quite some time. It is an important moment for the president to draw a distinction between what he did in Syria, which was so unpopular, that it did force Jim Mattis' resignation, and the posture in Iraq, where the U.S. military is much more intertwined with the Iraqi government in terms of allowing counterterrorism and governance to stand up.

So I think it was a visit he wanted to make anyway, but it just hit a whole new number of imperatives, given his decision in Syria and everything that has happened in the wake of that.

NOBLES: Yes, Elise, of course, President Trump talked a lot about the Middle East during his campaign. He certainly removed himself from the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party in talking about his foreign policy.

But I want to play for you a statement that he made about President Obama and ISIS during the campaign. Take a listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder of ISIS, OK? He is the founder. He founded ISIS.


And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton, co- founder.


NOBLES: So, if you can follow the president's logic during the campaign, he essentially said that it was President Obama's decision to pull out of Iraq that led to the founding of ISIS, and that's why he was the creator of ISIS.

Elise, is history repeating itself to a certain degree with President Trump's decision here in Syria? Couldn't this lead to the same sort of situation that he criticized President Obama for? ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that's

a big concern, Ryan.

And when he said that he founded -- what he -- this was like a glib remark about President Obama and Hillary Clinton. There was, if you remember, a lot of criticism of the Obama administration for failing to see the signs of this group that was kept gaining steam and gaining strength.

And before you knew it, they had amassed power of a whole swathe of both Syria and Iraq. So I think that there was a lot of responsibility placed on the Obama administration. I think the fear is right now that President Trump wants to declare ISIS over, even though his commanders and the U.S. envoy to the ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, who just resigned a few days ago, in large part because he's concerned that the job is not finished and this was a precipitous withdraw.

So, I think that there is a lot of concern that you could not only see ISIS come back, but something even more dangerous than ISIS. If you look at Iraq, the situation is still very, very precarious. The government is -- has still not still stood up there since the May elections. There's no reconstruction really to speak of.

There's no services. And people in Iraq, that's what they're very concerned about, that this is the situation that helped ISIS to flourish in the first place. So I think President Obama -- you can hearken back to when President Bush had that sign that said mission accomplished. I think that President Trump might come to regret those words, because the mission is not accomplished.

And I think that there are a lot of questions now about whether this withdraw will -- the U.S. will pay the price in the years to come.


Elise Labott, Margaret Talev, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Stand by. We are getting new details about President Trump's surprise visit to Iraq and what happened on the ground there.

Also, there is reaction coming in from overseas. We're going to have it all for you. You're watching CNN's special live coverage.



NOBLES: More now on our breaking news.

President Trump and the first lady make a surprise visit to troops in Iraq. It's his first visit to a combat zone since becoming president. And it comes amid his decision to pull troops out of Syria, the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and a partial government shutdown in the United States.

Let's find out how other world leaders are reacting to the news.

Here now, CNN senior international correspondents Ivan Watson, Nima Elbagir, and Fred Pleitgen.

Fred, let's start with you in Moscow. Obviously, the Kremlin has reacted to the president's decision to pull troops out of Syria. Today, the president said -- quote -- "Our presence in Syria was not open-ended," and he seems to be sticking by this decision, Despite the criticism here in the United States.

How is this news being received where you are?

PLEITGEN: Well, certainly, it's one of the things I think where the Kremlin's going to be very happy to hear the president say this, and certainly second his decision to pull out of Syria.

I think they're going to be watching this very, very carefully and very clearly watching this, because one of the things that we have heard over the past couple of days here in Moscow is that the Russians, on the one hand, applauded President Trump's decision to leave Syria. They said it's something that was long overdue.

The Russians, of course, believe that the U.S. presence in Syria is negative to what they want to achieve there, because, of course, Russia is right now on the ground by far the most powerful country that has a presence in Syria. And, certainly, they think that that's going to grow if and when the United States leaves that country.

But it was interesting, because Vladimir Putin, at his year-end press conference just a couple of days ago, said, look, we need to verify that this is really going to happen, that the U.S. is really going to pull out.

He brought the example of Afghanistan, saying, look, we have heard from the U.S. multiple times that they want to leave Afghanistan. They have never done that over the past 17 years. So this is certainly something that's going to reassure the Russians that the U.S. really is pulling out, and certainly something that's going to be music to their ears.

And one of the things, of course, that we have heard President Trump say in the past, when he was speaking about President Obama's Middle East politics, is, he was saying, look, President Obama tended to telegraph what he was going to do to America's adversaries.

And, right now, certainly, President Trump is the one who is reassuring at least Moscow that this is something that will really happen, Ryan.

NOBLES: All right, from Moscow, let's go to London now.

Nima, you obviously have covered the conflict in the Middle East for some time. You know about the reality there in Syria. President Trump has said that the war was won there, that ISIS was defeated. Today, he told troops in Iraq that they were very nearly defeated. He seems to be changing his description of exactly the situation there

with each passing day. How will this impact the stability of that region? And then, by an extension, what will it mean for those troops that the president was meeting with today in Iraq?

NIMA ELBAGIR, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has already confirmed the initial suspicions by clarifying to troops in his remarks to them, that these are the troops that will be expected to pick up that slack when the withdrawal from Syria is completed, that the troops stationed in Iraq will be expected to do border work to stop those ISIS elements that still continue to exist along that western border of Iraq and along the Iraq-Syria border.