WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump used a White House press conference with a crucial Middle East partner on Wednesday to misrepresent the actions of the U.S. military and his own political positions, as well as demonstrate his cluelessness about the region.
Standing next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a member of one of the savviest political families in the Middle East, Trump trotted out two lies in quick succession ― perhaps because he believed no one would cotton on, or more likely just because he can.
First he distorted the history of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State group. More progress has been made in the six months since he took office, Trump claimed, than during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Under Obama, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS pushed the militants off huge swaths of land in northern Syria, mostly thanks to a partnership that Obama’s team forged with a local Kurdish militia previously distrustful of Washington. The U.S.-led coalition also built up local partners in Iraq, retook a string of vital Iraqi towns and significant non-urban territory, and began the assault on Mosul, the Iraqi city whose capture in 2014 was an essential symbolic victory for ISIS. In between, Obama’s national security team secured crucial intelligence about how ISIS functions and managed tensions with partners who often seemed likely to go their own way, from Iran-backed militias in Iraq to the Turkish government, which is wary of the Syrian Kurds.
Obama’s strategy entailed serious risks for the long-term stability of the Middle East. But in terms of pushing back ISIS as quickly as possible, it worked. By the time Trump was inaugurated, the Islamic State’s territory had shrunk dramatically.
The new president has largely stuck to the same plan, simply rebranding it to distance his efforts from his campaign claims that Obama was mishandling the fight.
Trump’s second striking lie was to suggest that he had always been a critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad’s well-documented crimes against his own people had always disqualified him in Trump’s eyes, apparently ― not just since an April chemical weapons attack by his regime prompted a Trump-ordered airstrike.
This reading of history overlooks the many months that candidate Trump spent decrying U.S. opposition to Assad, casting it as a product of an overly interventionist consensus in Washington, and occasionally declaring that the dictator was an ideal partner against ISIS.
Trump appeared to espouse that thinking as recently as Monday night, when he tweeted about a Washington Post story revealing that he had ended a CIA effort to train anti-Assad rebels in Syria. In calling that covert program “dangerous and wasteful,” Trump echoed his own campaign trail rhetoric as well as arguments from Assad, Russia and Iran that the U.S. was wrong to support the rebels. (He also appeared to unilaterally declassify the effort just so he could criticize the Post.)
The two falsehoods on Tuesday were so striking that they partially overshadowed Trump’s other foreign affairs flub. The president was asked about Hezbollah, the armed Lebanon-based group that is tied to Iran and seen as an enemy of the U.S. Trump first said he believed Lebanon was fighting Hezbollah ― actually it forms part of Hariri’s government ― and then declared he would be making a decision on proposed U.S. sanctions against it by Wednesday. In fact, Congress hasn’t even begun to consider those sanctions yet.
Trump’s performance offered little that was new. His propensity to make up his own facts, including about publicly available information like how people voted, is well-known. But the press conference underscored how little the commander-in-chief has changed ― and how the presidency is being run by his rules.