President Donald Trump made the first visit of his presidency to American troops serving overseas with a surprise appearance at the al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq on Wednesday, a previously unannounced visit that comes one week after he pledged a major drawdown of U.S. military presence in the region.
Flanked by first lady Melania Trump, the president posed for selfies with members of the military and told service members that despite his pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, his administration is still prepared to strike in the region should the need arise—and that the United States will no longer be played for fools.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told service members in Iraq, where American forces have been fighting on and off since 1990. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” the president continued, according to the Associated Press. “The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” said Trump, who added there would be a “strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Syria.
“It’s time for us to start using our head,” he said, according to Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein, one of three wire reporters traveling with the president. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of anymore by countries that use us.”
The president also told troops that their eyes would be “popping” when they saw equipment that he promised to deliver to them, and that he wanted them to “relax” while in his company.
“I just want you to relax, just have a good time for a few minutes,” Trump said. “And then I’ll be heading to another location and then I’ll be heading back, but I have you totally in mind. Totally in mind.”
Trump’s vow to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, against the advice of nearly all his military advisers, prompted the very public resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who resigned so that the president might nominate “a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Twitter, with an accompanying photo showing the Trumps posing with U.S. Army service members at the air base.
Trump later tweeted a video montage of his visit, featuring an extremely uncomfortable handshake with one soldier.
“@FLOTUS Melania and I were honored to visit our incredible troops at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq,” Trump wrote. “GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.!”
The visit comes after months of increasing criticism of the president’s previous lack of interest in visiting troops serving in combat zones overseas, a tradition that he told the Associated Press in October was not “overly necessary.” After Trump cancelled a visit to a U.S. military cemetery in France last month—allegedly due to rain—the criticism grew even louder. Asked about the public outcry in the wake of that decision, Trump told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace that he couldn’t fit an overseas visit to the troops into his schedule, in part due to the special counsel investigation into his campaign’s ties with the Kremlin.
“I don’t think anybody’s been more with the military than I have, as a president,” Trump said at the time. “I’ve had an unbelievable busy schedule and I will be doing it. On top of which you have these phony witch hunts. On top of which—I mean, we’ve just been very busy.”
The appearance in Iraq comes one day after Trump broke a 16-year presidential tradition of visiting U.S. troops, either abroad or in the United States, on Christmas Day.
Trump’s visit also comes on the heels of an announcement to withdraw troops from the beleaguered war zone of Syria and the abrupt departure of Mattis and Brett McGurk, who was until last week the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State.
As The Daily Beast reported last week, following the president’s announcement on Syria, troops in the country were briefed on the drawback. Military leaders told the troops some would be moved to the al-Qaim base in western Iraq, while others would be redeployed to other areas in the Middle East.
The news that more U.S. troops would move to Iraq came as unwelcome news to some in the country’s parliament who last week held closed-door meetings about the apparent shift in focus from Syria to Iraq, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
While U.S. troops, along with their Iraqi allies, have defeated ISIS in large swaths of land in the country, the terrorist group still exists in small pockets. For the most part, though, local counterintelligence officers have been charged with tracking down members of ISIS, while U.S. troops have continued to operate in a train and assist capacity.