JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland — President Donald Trump once opined that it wasn’t “overly necessary” for him to visit troops in danger zones abroad. But with the lights of Air Force One out and window shutters drawn, the president did just that, slipping into Iraq at night to greet U.S. service members and show that his norm-busting presidency would hew at least to this tradition.
Trump arrived back in Washington in the pre-dawn hours Thursday, capping a 29-hour and six-minute trip to the conflict region conducted under the cover of night.
Addressing troops at an air base in western Iraq late Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to pull forces from neighboring Syria, declaring of Islamic State militants: “We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly.”
His appraisal is at odds with that of military officials, aides and allies who consider IS a diminished but deadly force. His defense secretary and envoy to the anti-IS coalition quit after Trump blindsided much of the national security establishment with his call.
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. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan as president; President Barack Obama made four to Afghanistan and one to Iraq.
Such trips are typically unannounced and the subject of extreme security. Trump’s was no exception as he flew overnight from Washington, spent three-plus hours on the ground and stopped on the way back at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for refueling and to greet service members in a hangar.
Trump told his audience in Iraq that the decision to withdraw the roughly 2,000 troops from Syria illustrated his quest to put “America first.”
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump said at al-Asad Air Base, about 100 miles or 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
He did not meet Iraqi officials while there but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The visit appeared to inflame sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq as the two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament condemned the trip, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The air base where Trump spoke is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but they still hold a patch of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also have fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February, but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1. Trump said he was in “no rush” to nominate a new defense chief.
“Everybody and his uncle wants that position,” Trump told reporters traveling with him. “And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won’t be criticized.”
Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump’s increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.