WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump tried Wednesday to distance the United States from the escalating chaos in northern Syria following the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops in the region - dismissing U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters as "no angels" as the outrage over his decision to pull American forces continued to grow on Capitol Hill.
In remarks in the Oval Office, Trump insisted that the ongoing conflict was "between Turkey and Syria" rather than among "Turkey and Syria and the United States" - comments that provoked a fresh round of criticism from congressional Republicans who have said Trump's decision to withdraw troops allowed the Turkish incursion last week into northern Syria.
"They're no angels. They're no angels. Go back and take a look," Trump said as he sat alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whom the White House was hosting for a visit Wednesday. Trump insisted that the Kurds would be fine because they "know how to fight."
"There's a lot of sand they can play with," Trump said of the region. "It's possibly never going to be very stable."
At a later news conference with Mattarella, Trump said the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK - a militant group that has regularly launched attacks inside Turkey in the name of Kurdish nationalism - was respected by the Islamic State "because they're as tough, or tougher than ISIS."
Trump's comments Wednesday continued the mixed messages from the administration on the situation in Syria, even as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were scheduled to depart Wednesday for Ankara to try to negotiate an immediate cease-fire with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In public remarks Monday, administration officials also took a harder line with Turkey than Trump, muddying the United States' message on the hostilities in northern Syria.
"Turkey's military offensive into northeast Syria is undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS, endangering innocent civilians and threatening peace, security, and stability in the region," Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday in New York. "We have made it clear with Turkey that any actions in northeast Syria in violation of international law, including international humanitarian law, are unacceptable."
The House adopted a resolution in an overwhelming bipartisan vote that rebuked Trump's move to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria - a decision announced Oct. 6 that has found few defenders on Capitol Hill. The vote was 354 to 60 with three Republicans and independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan voting present.
All members of the House GOP leadership team were among the 129 Republicans who supported the resolution. A few notable Republican members opposed it, including the leaders of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus; Rep. Tom Reed of New York, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus; and Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, the vice president's brother.
The House strategy is meant to force Trump to sign or veto legislation that scolded his own decision, although Senate Republican leaders have yet to publicly commit to taking up that bill.
"Alliances and values are important," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., speaking out on the House floor. "Walking away from friends is a sad indication of policy that we don't want to support, we don't want to condone. Yes, we want America to be great, but we're also great because of our friends and our allies. Coalitions are not bad. Coalitions strengthen our public policy around the world."
Trump's words drew criticism from prominent GOP voices, who continued to condemn his decision to withdraw the troops.
"To have the vice president and the secretary of state going to meet with Erdogan and suggesting that somehow we're surprised by what's happening is disingenuous," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party's 2012 presidential nominee. "Very clearly it was a decision by the administration which has led to what you're seeing. This is a bit like the farmer locking the barn door after the horses left."
On Trump's insistence that the Kurds were "no angels," Romney responded: "Oh my goodness gracious. they are our friends, they have been our ally and abandoning them was a very dark moment in American history.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., otherwise a stalwart Trump ally who has departed from the president dramatically on his actions in Syria, said Trump's comments Wednesday "completely undercut" Pence and Pompeo's ability to reach a cease-fire.