Few moments have provoked such widespread condemnation of President Donald Trump from fellow Republicans as his sudden decision this month to withdraw most U.S. troops from Syria.
But if Trump hoped to win a reprieve from GOP skeptics after the raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he may be disappointed.
Sue Wehnert said she shakes her head “in disbelief” at Trump’s handling of world affairs, including the Syria withdrawal. The 57-year old Republican who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, voted for Trump in 2016 and has no regrets. But she doesn’t buy the president’s argument that the al-Baghdadi mission validates his unconventional approach to foreign policy and national security.
“Pulling the troops out was not part of a strategic ploy to divert attention enabling us to raid the compound” of al-Baghdadi, she said.
As he faces a growing impeachment threat and a heated battle for reelection next year, it’s important for Trump to keep voters like Wehnert in his column. But other Republicans and Trump backers said they were also trying to make sense of the dizzying developments overseas.
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John Brandte, an attorney from Concord, New Hampshire, who voted for Trump in 2016, agrees with the president’s view that the U.S. shouldn’t serve as the world’s police force, and he wanted to see troops withdrawn from Syria. But he nonetheless found Trump’s moves “a surprise” and questioned the timing. He struggled to square his reservations about the withdrawal with the news with al-Baghdadi’s death.
“We have the apparently abrupt troop pullout from Syria, but then we have the head bad guy being taken out, and Trump was absolutely part of it, part of the whole process,” Brandte said.
Philip Zelikow, a registered Republican who served in every administration from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, including as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and director of the 9/11 Commission, said he doesn’t identify with Trump’s GOP. He said he had no confidence in Trump before al-Baghdadi’s death and has none now.
“There’s no judgment there. There’s no analysis. It’s simply what’s the posture I need to strike on TV today that makes me look good,” he said of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. “A boat that has no rudder will occasionally drift into the right course.”
Ironically, some of the Republicans who are cheering Trump the loudest are those who have most vocally opposed him in the past.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who challenged Trump in the 2016 GOP primary and has been critical of the president’s leadership, voiced a hopeful note.
“I applaud President Trump’s decision to strike al-Baghdadi and other ISIS fighters. The fight against terror will be a long one, and my hope is that we continue to lead the effort to keep us safe,” he told The Associated Press.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Republicans had been the party of overseas intervention, coupling internationalist views of the world with a focus on American military might. But after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public has grown weary of sending troops into harm’s way. A summer Pew Research survey of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq found that a significant majority said those wars were not worth fighting.
It’s a sentiment Trump seized on during his 2016 campaign and one that he has stressed in recent weeks as he’s sought to justify his actions.
“We want to be home. I want our soldiers home or fighting something that’s meaningful,” he said Sunday when announcing al-Baghdadi’s death.
That approach has yet to resonate with voters.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that just 35% of registered voters approve of the way Trump is handling foreign policy, while 61% disapprove. And 6 in 10 disapprove of the president’s decision to remove U.S. military support from the Kurds in Syria, including 86% of Democrats and 31% of Republicans, who have typically stood closely behind him.
That disapproval has yet to become a prime focus of the Democratic candidates competing for the chance to take on Trump. They have spent far more time discussing domestic issues like health care and guns during recent debates.
Lynn Heitman, a 67-year-old retired high school teacher in Odessa, Florida, wishes the Democratic candidates would spend more time talking issues and focus less on the ongoing impeachment inquiry against Trump.
“I’m not really impressed with the candidates, unfortunately,” she said. At this point, she said, she is likely to vote for Trump again in 2020, even though “there’s a lot of things he does I’m not really crazy about,” including his handling of Syria.
“I was really concerned about that,” she said at a tailgate ahead of a Navy-South Florida game in Annapolis, where hundreds had gathered — some in uniform — to cheer on their teams. “I’m not so sure I agree with that. I guess I am worried about the ISIS getting loose.”
Trump still has plenty of backers.
“I believe he did the right thing. He pulled our troops out. By pulling the troops out, he saved their lives,” said Paul Maguire, 34, a staunch Trump supporter from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. While the troops pulled out of Syria will not actually be returning home, as Trump has repeatedly claimed, Maguire questioned why the U.S. would remain “when it’s not our fight.
“That’s their war, let them have it,” he said.
Mickey McDermot, who co-owns Ryan’s Place, a restaurant in Epping, New Hampshire, named after her deceased son, who served in the Army, agreed.
“I love everything he does and says because he’s right on point with everything,” she said of Trump, adding later: “Our boys belong here ... They should be home.”
As for al-Bagdhadi, she said he was pleased he was gone, but she complained that Trump wasn’t getting enough credit.
“What makes me mad is that nobody’s celebrating it,” she said.