Graham, one of Trump’s strongest defenders, has broken with the president over his sudden decision to withdraw American military personnel, a move that triggered widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats. Turkish forces deepened their offensive against the Kurds on Thursday.
Graham ratcheted up the criticism of Trump for his decision and lashed out at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference at The Citadel military college in Charleston.
“The president has abandoned the people who helped us destroy ISIS, chaos is unfolding, and when I hear the president — ‘We’re getting out of Syria’ — my statement to you is this is worse than what Obama did,” Graham said, comparing Trump to former president Barack Obama. “When Obama left Iraq, all hell broke loose, and if you think, Mr. President, ISIS is only a threat to Europe, you really don’t understand ISIS. ISIS is wanting to come after all of us. Not just Europeans.”
When a reporter asked if this could become Trump’s Vietnam, Graham replied, “No, this is worse.”
Graham recounted a meeting two weeks ago with Erdogan in which he told the Turkish leader that a “win-win” would be a situation in which an American-led international force would create a safe zone that would protect Turkey from the Kurds and vice versa.
He also said he told Erdogan, “If you go into Syria and try to deal with this through a military operation, I will crush your economy, you will be putting the American people in a bad spot, you will make us abandon somebody who helped us destroy ISIS — and you really did a lot to create ISIS by creating open flows of foreign fighters into Syria.”
Meanwhile, the three top House Republicans — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.) — announced that they and dozens of their GOP colleagues would be introducing legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey for its military offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.
The legislation is similar to what Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have proposed.
“If Turkey wants to be treated like an ally, it must begin behaving like one. They must be sanctioned for their attacks on our Kurdish allies,” Cheney said in a statement.
At his news conference, Graham highlighted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked people to “pray for the Kurds.”
“I think he’s sending a message to Americans,” said Graham. “You need to stand by the Kurds, because if you abandon them, then the forces that oppose us are going to take over Syria.”
Graham spoke forcefully after a report said that he said this summer that he sympathized with Turkey’s situation with the Kurds and had called them “a threat.”
Graham made the comments when he answered his phone in August to discuss foreign policy with who he thought was Turkey’s defense minister. He chatted for 16 minutes about Russia and Syria and Trump’s thinking on those matters, but on the other end of the line wasn’t a Turkish official, but known Russian pranksters.
The call was first reported Thursday by Politico.
Days after that first call, the pranksters phoned Graham again, according to Politico. Graham filled them in on what he had spoken to Trump about vis-a-vis Graham’s first call with the man he believed to be the defense minister.
“We want a better relationship with Turkey. That’s exactly what he wants,” Graham said on the call.
Itkowitz reported from Washington.