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In private chat with senator, Trump hints at policy shift in Afghanistan

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stands as President Trump arrives to sign an executive order at the White House in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In the days leading up to a key vote last week over the fate of his nominee for secretary of state, President Trump found a way to win over one of the biggest skeptics in the Senate.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a rare noninterventionist Republican, was signaling that he would oppose Trump’s pick, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a hawkish former congressman who had backed the Iraq War.

But the more Trump and Paul spoke, including three calls April 23, the more assured Paul became that the president was moving back toward the noninterventionist worldview that Trump had championed on the campaign trail. The conversations left Paul with a particularly enticing notion: that Trump was prepared to end the war in Afghanistan.

“The president told me over and over again in general we’re getting the hell out of there,” Paul said in an interview Thursday in his Senate office. “I think the president’s instincts and inclination are to resolve the Afghan conflict.”

The two men discussed no exit dates and did not strike a written agreement, as Trump urged Paul to meet one-on-one with Pompeo and ultimately secured the senator’s support ahead of a key Foreign Relations Committee vote that paved the way for confirmation.

It is unclear just how much Trump’s private conversations signal a public shift in policy or, rather, if they are just maneuvering by a famously transactional leader who often says what he needs to say to make a deal and then reverses himself. The White House declined to comment for this story, but an official confirmed the outlines of the interactions that Paul described.

Nonetheless, Trump’s talks with Paul reflect an area of growing tension between the president, whose instinct is to pull out from overseas entanglements, and his military, whose leaders argue that swift withdrawals would spark dangerous instability. In Afghanistan, one indication of the military’s nervousness is its eagerness to open peace talks with the Taliban and try to negotiate an end to the conflict.

The Trump-Paul conversations also point to an effort by the dovish senator and former Trump rival, long treated by his party as a foreign policy gadfly, to assert influence over a president who chafes at being managed by his advisers and the Republican foreign policy establishment.

The odds are steep for Paul, even as he tries to nudge Trump into being more like Trump, or at least the Trump he came to know on the campaign trail. Paul’s efforts have been complicated by a recent spate of attacks in the country, including two bombings Monday that killed at least 25 people. An affiliate of the Islamic State asserted responsibility.

The White House is increasingly full of hawks, such as national security adviser John Bolton, whose views Paul has fiercely opposed. And Trump has long been courted by Paul’s foreign policy nemesis in the Senate, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

“Senator Paul is an outlier,” Graham said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Monday that Trump had not given any indication that he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan.

“We’re there to do a job. We’re not there to stay forever. But the job comes first,” he said. “Matter of fact, we have a number of nations looking to add forces as we speak.”

There are signs that Trump is increasingly coming around to Paul’s message on Afghanistan and a host of other foreign policy issues.

Of late, Trump has bucked his top economic advisers and proposed a broad set of new tariffs on steel, aluminum and Chinese products. He agreed to a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without clear concessions from Pyongyang as a precondition.

In March, he shocked the Pentagon and State Department when he went off script at an Ohio event and announced, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” Since then commanders have rushed through plans to mop up the remnants of the Islamic State as a fighting force and withdraw U.S. troops over the next six months.

On the campaign trail, Trump blasted Paul as “truly weird” and denigrated his rival’s appearance. “I never attacked him on his look,” Trump said once of Paul. “And believe me, there is plenty of subject matter right there.”

These days, he talks about Paul as a trusted friend, telling aides that on key votes, Paul “won’t let us down.” He has even praised the senator’s golf game.

Paul gets less-positive reviews from White House staffers, who grouse that he is a grandstander who causes them unnecessary headaches and hours of work. “If you think anyone in the White House has an ounce of clout with Rand Paul other than the president, you are wrong,” one White House official said. “There is not a single person who can take credit for having a conversation that was successful with Rand Paul except for POTUS.”

In their talks last week, Paul said, Trump agreed to reopen discussion about placing a warrant requirement on FBI searches of foreign intelligence data collected under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The intelligence community fiercely opposes the change, and Paul recently failed to get the new limit written into law.

“I think there is a great deal of sympathy from the president,” Paul said, noting Trump’s concerns about politicization of the FBI. “We are pushing for a meeting within the next couple of weeks with the president.”

Paul said Pompeo also discussed his first big speech to State Department personnel, saying it would sound a note on the failures of U.S. foreign policy over the past several decades, regime change among them. A person familiar with Pompeo’s thinking said his views on foreign policy have not changed.

“I can’t put words in his mouth,” Paul added. “I don’t know what [exactly] he would say.”

But the most consequential parts of the conversations may have concerned Afghanistan, where Trump, known for relying on his gut, has so far accepted an approach that cuts against his original instinct to pull out. The core of the current Afghanistan policy is built on a commitment to end the Obama-era withdrawal timelines and stay in the country until conditions on the ground improve.

Taliban leaders “are realizing that they can’t just wait us out anymore,” a senior U.S. official in Kabul said in March. “That’s huge.”

Other senior officials have expressed more doubt about the conflict, which still appears stalemated. To Paul, the president’s private comments reflect a broader impatience with the war strategy inside the administration.

“We are in the midst of a shifting policy that I don’t think they’ll want to get very specific in the White House — and maybe for good reasons,” Paul said. “If you were to ask, ‘Is the president for resolving the Afghan conflict?’ I think he would say, ‘Yes.’ I think he is just not willing like most people to say, ‘Tomorrow.’ ”

Others familiar with Trump’s way of doing business are skeptical that the private words mean a shift is imminent.

“My first reaction is to not quite believe the president’s statements,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Afghanistan. “How many times has he said we’re leaving Iraq and Syria, and then it doesn’t happen?”

The question is whether Paul’s influence will persuade Trump to listen less to generals and more to his gut.

“His true worldview, and I have heard him say this over and over, is that we have no business being anywhere over there and we look like fools,” said one longtime friend, who has spoken to Trump repeatedly about the Middle East. “He is inclined to agree with Rand Paul.”

The challenge for the military will be convincing Trump that despite modest battlefield success, the threat posed by terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands a robust U.S. investment in money and troops. “His military leaders are definitely opposed to the Rand Paul worldview,” said Graham. “They understand the value of some of us being over there.”

Trump and Paul first got to know each other in 2014, when Trump invited Paul to play a round at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. Trump later gave money to a Utah charity that funded Paul’s regular trips to Haiti and Central America, where Paul, an ophthalmologist, performs cataract surgeries.

By the 2016 campaign, however, relations had descended into a vicious tit for tat. Paul said at one point that a “speck of dirt” was more qualified to be president than Trump and compared him to Gollum, a slimy, power-obsessed creature from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books. Trump called Paul “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain” and mocked his height at a rally. “Rand, I’ve had you up to here,” Trump said, holding his hand partway up his chest.

But since Trump’s election, their relationship has blossomed, as they once again became golf partners and the president began calling regularly. “Rand Paul is a very special guy, as far as I’m concerned,” Trump told reporters on April 18, during negotiations for the Pompeo vote.

After early opposition, Paul supported the last Senate bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, though the bill nonetheless failed. Over the legal concerns of some staff, Trump also backed a Paul proposal to push the Labor Department to expand the ability of associations to offer their own health plans, without the minimum coverage requirements prescribed by Obamacare.

In January, Paul introduced a bill to end foreign aid to Pakistan and spend the money instead on U.S. infrastructure. “Good idea Rand!” Trump tweeted in response.

The two men still make common cause over their shared opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, which made them stand out in the 2016 Republican primaries.

“The other day when we were talking, he said it’s probably only he and I of the whole 16 that shared any of this vision of foreign policy that these wars had been a mistake,” Paul said. “That’s something. That’s an amazing opening for people like me who think we have made so many mistakes.”