Trump boasts he’s bringing troops home from Syria (except he’s not)

Updated

Facing bipartisan criticisms for his dangerous new policy in northern Syria, Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized a core priority as a fundamental defense: the American president has said he’s desperate to bring American troops “back home.”

“Bring our troops back home…. It’s time to bring them home,” the Republican told supporters at a campaign rally two weeks ago. Trump’s pushed the same message on Twitter, arguing last week, “I am the only person who can fight for the safety of our troops & bring them home.” He added at an unrelated White House event that it’s “time to bring our soldiers back home.”

There’s ample room for debate about the wisdom of the Republican’s policy, and whether he’s pursuing the most responsible course. What’s far less debatable is whether he’s bringing U.S. troops home – because as the Associated Press reported, “That’s not what he’s doing.”

While the U.S. has begun what the Pentagon calls a deliberate withdrawal of troops from Syria, Trump himself has said that the 200 to 300 U.S. service members deployed to a southern Syria outpost in Al-Tanf will remain there.

And on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the current plan calls for all U.S. troops who are leaving Syria to go to western Iraq, not home. They number more than 700.

Asked Sunday why troops weren’t coming home as Trump said they would, his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said: “Well, they will eventually.”

Mulvaney’s response wasn’t exactly compelling. No one’s suggested the president is relocating U.S. troops to the Middle East, making foreign countries their permanent new home. The trouble is, the more Trump says, “It’s time to bring them home,” the more he leads Americans to believe those troops are en route to U.S. soil, which is plainly not the case.

In fact, by some accounts, Trump’s entire withdrawal plan appears to be in doubt. NBC News had this report earlier today:

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the Pentagon was discussing keeping some U.S. troops in parts of northeastern Syria.

Speaking with reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that while the withdrawal from northeastern Syria was underway, some troops were still present to ensure oil fields do not fall into the hands of the Islamic State group or other militants. […] Asked whether there was a plan or discussions of keeping a residual force in any part of eastern Syria, Esper responded that it had been discussed.

Oh. So for those keeping score, late last year, Donald Trump declared the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, only to quietly reverse course soon after. Roughly 10 months later, Trump again announced another withdrawal, though the Pentagon is now signaling the president may be hedging on that policy, too.

Indeed, the New York Times added, “If Mr. Trump approves the proposal to leave a couple of hundred Special Operations forces in eastern Syria, it would mark the second time in 10 months that he has reversed his order to pull out nearly all American troops from the country.”

It’s a timely reminder: watch what Trump and his team do, not what they say.