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Lawmakers Push Back Against Trump's Moves To Withdraw U.S. Troops From Syria


Many lawmakers are returning to Capitol Hill this week, and they are largely united in their opposition to the president's shifting policy in the Middle East. Bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are pushing new legislation to sanction Turkey as it attacks the Kurds in northeastern Syria. There's strong pushback to the president's withdrawal of U.S. troops from that region, making this the rare issue where Republicans are breaking with President Trump. NPR's Tim Mak joins us from Capitol Hill.

Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: So what have you heard on the Hill today?

MAK: So it's really remarkable that at a time where the president faces political peril in the form of an impeachment inquiry, he's also alienated some of his strongest political allies on Capitol Hill. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham - he's one of the president's strongest Senate allies, but he's been critical about the president's decisions to withdraw troops from northern Syria. Graham has been working with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen to expand sanctions on Turkey. Here's what Van Hollen told NPR earlier today.


CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: You've heard strong negative reactions across the political spectrum. And our proposed sanctions will be very biting, and they will stay in effect until Turkey ends its aggression against the Syrian Kurds and withdraws its forces and proxies from the areas that it's taken.

SHAPIRO: Explain why this would be the issue where Republicans are breaking with President Trump.

MAK: Republicans and the president have, over the past few years, simply not seen eye to eye on national security policy. Many favor a more hawkish view. And they already had an overwhelming vote on this issue earlier this year. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reminding the Senate of this today.


MITCH MCCONNELL: When it looked like President Trump would withdraw from Syria at the beginning of the year, 70 - 70 senators joined in warning of the risk of precipitously withdrawing from Syria or Afghanistan.

MAK: So on the latest developments, it really does appear that lawmakers were not briefed. They weren't warned. It was unexpected. It was sudden. And it caught a lot of the president's strongest supporters off guard.

SHAPIRO: Now, the White House says it is responding by sending Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo to Turkey to negotiate a cease-fire. The president has also imposed some sanctions on Turkey by executive order. How does what's being proposed in Congress differ from the steps the administration is taking?

MAK: So Trump has touted those sanctions. Here's what he said today about them.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We put the strongest sanctions that you can imagine, but they get a lot. We have a lot in store if they don't have an impact.

MAK: So the framework being written now and proposed by Van Hollen and Graham would expand the sanctions against Turkey beyond what it currently - what currently would take effect with that executive order. It would be more expansive. It would target the energy sector of Turkey, for example. It would prohibit U.S. military assistance to Turkey and would bar Turkish leadership from coming to the United States. And if passed to law - and if passed into law, it would mandate that the president enforce the sanctions. Unlike an executive order, it could not be as easily withdrawn.

SHAPIRO: Of course, it would have to pass with a veto-proof majority. What's the chance that Congress would be able to do that before the session is over?

MAK: You know, that's interesting. There is a really strong bipartisan approach to this and an effort behind this. We talked about earlier how there had already been a large veto-proof majority in the Senate who had voted on a resolution - not on sanctions but on a resolution. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears open to the idea of sanctions. Although he didn't commit to a date for a vote on them, he did kind of take a jab at the president's world view.


MCCONNELL: Exercising leadership in troubled regions and advancing U.S. interests around the world does not make us an evil empire or the world's policeman. It makes us a prudent and responsible world power.

MAK: Supporters of sanctions say this needs to be done very quickly because the reality on the ground is changing fast.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tim Mak, thank you.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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