Washington — President Trump slammed Kurds in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, repeatedly declaring that members of the group that fought alongside U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS are "not angels."
He also tacitly condoned Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, even as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeoto urge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end the conflict.
"They're not angels. They're not angels. Take a look. You have to go back and take a look," Mr. Trump said of the Kurds during a bilateral meeting at the White House alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president's comments undermine the diplomatic effort to rein in Turkey.
The president authorized a drawdown of troops in northeastern Syria last week, a decision which has been met with fierce criticism from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who have introduced bipartisan measures to impose sanctions on Turkey. The Kurds are guarding several prisons containing former ISIS fighters and their families, leading to concerns that the prisoners could escape.
Mr. Trump suggested that the U.S. should not get involved if Turkey invades Syria, even though his administration introducedagainst Turkey for engaging in the conflict this week.
"That has nothing to do with us," Mr. Trump said. "They've got a lot of sand over there ... There's a lot of sand they can play with."
Mr. Trump repeated the line that Kurds are not angels multiple times during a press conference later Wednesday alongside the Italian president. Mr. Trump touted Turkey as one of the few NATO nations nearly pulling its weight on defense spending, even as Turkey uses some of those funds to launch an assault on the Kurds.
"Why are we protecting Syria's land? Assad's not a friend of ours. Why are we protecting their land? And Syria also has a relationship with the Kurds, who by the way are no angels. OK? Who is an angel? There aren't too many around," Mr. Trump said, a reference he said again during the press conference.
Mr. Trump also said Erdogan's decision to launch an offensive on the Kurds in Syria "didn't surprise me," as it's something Erdogan has long wanted. The commander-in-chief also called the PKK, a Kurdish political party, probably a greater terrorist threat than ISIS.
Asked if he regretting giving the "green light" to Erdogan, Mr. Trump insisted he didn't give the Turkish leader the go-ahead to invade. The president then went on to insist that the U.S. has been fighting ISIS for other countries, like Russia and Iran, and those countries can now fight ISIS instead since they're closer geographically.
"Russia's tough. They can kill ISIS just as well, and they happen to be in their neighborhood," Mr. Trump said.
Italy's president expressed concern over Turkey's assault on the Kurds and the possibility of a reinvigorated ISIS, although he did not directly criticize Mr. Trump, insisting he doesn't want to judge another nation's decisions.
Even as he insists he's getting troops out of the Middle East, Mr. Trump defended the decision to send 1,500 American troops to Saudi Arabia, saying the Saudis are "paying" for the troops' presence "100%."
Meanwhile, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Mr. Trump's decision to pull troops in northeastern Syria, in a vote of 354 to 60. The only votes opposing the resolution came from Republicans, and four members voted present.
Speaking to reporters before meeting with Mr. Trump to discuss the situation in Syria, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he hoped Majority Leader Mitch McConnell McConnell would bring the resolution to the Senate floor.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that President Trump had said, "If Turkey goes into Syria, it is between Turkey and Syria. It's not our problem." In fact, Mr. Trump said, "It's not our border." The story has been updated.