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Trump Visits Iraq, Pays Troops Surprise Visit


On this day after Christmas, President Trump paid a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, his first visit to an active combat zone since taking office nearly two years ago. First lady Melania Trump was with him. They posed for selfies with the troops, thanking service members for their sacrifice.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Though you are thousands of miles away from your home and your loved ones, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas. I also know that speaking for your families, they are missing you, and they love you. And, you know, they're every bit a part of your success.

SHAPIRO: This trip was a dramatic gesture by the president made just days after the resignation of his defense secretary. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This visit was a closely guarded secret, and it comes at a sensitive time for the president. Not only is the government partially shut down, but he's made some controversial military decisions lately.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. You know, President Trump talks often about his support for the men and women in uniform and his push for increased military spending, but he is also deeply skeptical about the value and the wisdom of foreign engagements, including those in the Middle East. Just last week, he announced abruptly that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria and about half the troops out of Afghanistan. Both of those moves were over the opposition of his military commanders. And in fact the withdrawal from Syria was so upsetting to the defense secretary that Secretary Jim Mattis quit over it.

So it's it's definitely a sensitive time, and certainly the pictures of the president and first lady shaking hands and posing for pictures with the troops will quiet that controversy for a little while. But I don't think it's going to silence the debate over the long run.

SHAPIRO: Any evidence that he might be planning a similar drawdown in Iraq to the ones that he's announced in Syria and Afghanistan?

HORSLEY: No. In fact, our colleague Tamara Keith, who's traveling with the president, asked Trump about that, and he said there are no plans to withdraw any of the 5,200 or so American troops who are currently stationed in Iraq. In fact, Trump said that in the event that ISIS were to regroup and once again pose a threat, it would be those troops in Iraq who would be responsible for dealing with it. Here's the president's exchange with Tamara Keith when she asked him about pulling troops out of Iraq.


TRUMP: No plans at all, no.


TRUMP: In fact, we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.

HORSLEY: Now, the president has said that he thinks ISIS is all but defeated, but he is acknowledging there that there's a possibility the group could reconstitute.

SHAPIRO: I understand the president was also supposed to meet with Iraq's prime minister on this visit, but that was called off. Tell us about why.

HORSLEY: We are getting news from our colleague Jane Arraf in Iraq from her political sources there. Apparently there was a disagreement about where the president and the prime minister might meet. The president wanted the prime minister to come to the airbase in Anbar province where Trump was. The Iraqis saw that as compromising their sovereignty. I think they wanted the president to go to Baghdad. That was a nonstarter on the American side. However, the president did invite the prime minister to visit him here in Washington.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley - thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.