Donald Trump and Melania Trump greet troops in Iraq

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet members of the military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump visited U.S. troops in Iraq for the first time during his presidency, the White House said Wednesday, after he came under criticism for not going earlier and during a tumultuous period for his national security team.

“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,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted.

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The president had been hinting for weeks that he would soon visit U.S. troops in a combat theater. The trip to Al Asad Air Base, which the White House kept quiet until after the president spoke to troops, comes days after Trump ordered a full withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and pushed for halving the 14,000-strong U.S. military contingent in Afghanistan.

“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump said during remarks at the base, according to a pool report. “We’re respected again as a nation.”

Trump said he would not withdraw troops from Iraq, The Associated Press reported, although he said the Islamic State militant group is “very nearly defeated. He added that if there is a resurgence by the group, troops in Iraq would be able to combat it.

The president and first lady Melania Trump spent three hours visiting with troops, where he took selfies and signed autographs, according to the pool report.

“Melania and I were honored to visit our incredible troops at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.!” he tweeted after the visit. Trump planned to make one additional stop before returning to the U.S. Friday, the White House told reporters, though they didn’t name the location.

The trip comes as the national security establishment is going through a particularly chaotic period.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who sent Trump his resignation letter after failing to persuade the president to reverse course on the Syria pullout, is on the job for just a few more days. He remained in D.C. as the president made his trip. His deputy, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, takes over as acting Defense secretary on Jan. 1.

Brett McGurk, the top civilian envoy responsible for efforts to defeat the Islamic State, resigned shortly after Mattis, reportedly also over the abrupt Syria pullout. Trump has taken shots at both Mattis and McGurk on Twitter in recent days.

The president on Tuesday made calls to U.S. service members stationed in Guam, Bahrain, Qatar and Alaska, but he did not speak with troops stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.

Journalists have traditionally agreed to hold off on reporting a U.S. president’s travel to a war zone for security reasons, consenting to an embargo of the details of the trip. But speculation that he was abroad began to rise as observers noticed that Trump had not tweeted on Wednesday, even though he had been active on social media over the Christmas holidays. Flight trackers on Twitter also played a leading role in outing the president’s post-Christmas travel plans, flagging the departure of an unidentified military aircraft from Joint Base Andrews early Wednesday and tracing its path to the United Kingdom and then to Italy.

Reporters have for weeks been waiting for Trump to make an unexpected trip abroad. The president canceled his scheduled trip to his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida because of the partial government shutdown. The White House hasn’t been distributing a daily schedule for the president since the shutdown, so Trump’s relative absence from public view in recent days made it easier for him to secretly travel abroad.

Last month, a reporter asked the president whether he was “afraid” to visit a combat theater. “No, I’m going to a war zone,” Trump responded, though he would not say when.

But Trump also signaled earlier this year that traveling to a war zone was not a huge priority. “I will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary. I’ve been very busy with everything that’s taking place here,” he said in an October interview with the AP.

The day before Thanksgiving, Mattis cryptically suggested that he had advised Trump not to visit some combat areas, but he didn’t say which ones. “The president is the commander in chief and he decides where he needs to go,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon at the time. “There are times I don’t want him in certain locations, to be frank with you, for his security and the troops’ security. There’s places that, I’ve been very straightforward, I don’t want him to go at certain times.”

Trump’s nearly two-year delay in visiting deployed troops has long been a subject of speculation and criticism. Barack Obama made the first of his five visits to Iraq and Afghanistan just three months after taking office. George W. Bush made six trips, with the first coming two years after he ordered U.S. forces into Afghanistan and eight months after he launched the war in Iraq.

The president should visit the combat theaters “not just to get an idea of what’s going on, but to personally thank men and women in the uniform of the United States who are exposing themselves to great dangers for the country,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told reporters in October.

“That goes a long way, and that’s something that the commander in chief should do,” Reed said, calling such trips “absolutely indispensable.”

For units deployed in combat theaters, a presidential visit can be both a morale boost and a logistical disruption. Security concerns can grind day-to-day flights and other activities to a halt.

“They distract from the military effort while they are happening, they consume resources, and they provide targets to the enemy, so you have to balance all that against the political benefits,” David Sedney, who served with the State Department in Afghanistan under Bush and was a senior Obama Pentagon official, said in an interview earlier this year.

Al Asad, a remote airbase in the desert of western Iraq’s Anbar Province, is a logistical hub for U.S. troops helping Iraqi forces fight Islamic State holdouts near the border with Syria. As one of the largest U.S. bases in the country from 2003 to 2011, it also hosted George W. Bush’s summer 2007 visit at the height of the surge.

About 5,200 U.S. troops are in Iraq advising local forces on counterinsurgency operations and providing airstrikes, artillery, intelligence and other support. Some troops deployed near the Syrian border have recently been firing artillery into the Hajin area of Syria, where U.S. special operations forces were helping Kurdish and Arab militias grind down the Islamic State’s last territorial pocket in the country before Trump’s surprise Syria pullout order last week.

In recent days, U.S. convoys and flights of helicopters have been photographed leaving Syria for Iraq, which is expected to remain a hub for counterterrorism against Islamic State remnants. The Pentagon has reportedly floated the possibility of launching occasional special operations raids from Iraq into Syria to compensate for the pullout of the 2,000 advisers on the ground, but the fate of the air campaign remains unclear.

Although the president has praised the armed services, he has not served in the military, and he was able to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam because of a medical exemption for bone spurs. The New York Times on Wednesday reported that daughters of the late podiatrist Larry Braunstein said the doctor provided the diagnosis of bone spurs for a medical exemption to Trump as a favor.

Andrew Restuccia and Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.



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