“Trump Approved the Turkish Invasion of Syria”

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. Here’s one:

On Oct. 6, the day President Trump spoke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and gave tacit approval for a Turkish military invasion, the American military had around 1,000 troops in Syria.

Isn’t there a clear difference between acquiescence in an action and approval of it? I’ve acquiesced in the Trump presidency; it doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that I “approve” of it, whether explicitly or tacitly. What is the evidence for the claim that Trump approved of, or “gave approval for,” the Turkish invasion of Syria?

If you click the link they supply, it goes to an article that reports this. Remarkably, the article is called “President Endorses Turkish Military Operation in Syria, Shifting U.S. Policy.”

Administration officials said that Mr. Trump spoke directly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on the issue on Sunday. And the officials indicated that the 100 to 150 United States military personnel deployed to that area would be pulled back in advance of any Turkish operation but that they would not be completely withdrawn from Syria.

How is that evidence of “approval”? Where is the “endorsement”?

Just after that, there’s this:

On Monday, witnesses in Syria saw United States forces withdrawing from two positions in northeastern Syria: observation posts in Tel Abyad and Ein Eissa.

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House said in a statement released just before 11 p.m. in Washington. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

That’s neither “approval” nor “endorsement,” either.

Later in the article, there’s this:

But around that same time, Turkish officials were privately saying that they saw things very differently: They said they perceived a sharp division between Mr. Trump and other American officials — most notably generals in the United States Central Command, which oversees troops in the Middle East. While it was clear the generals wanted to bar Turkey from the safe zone and keep American troops there, Mr. Trump clearly wanted the troops out, they said, and in the end he might get his way.

Mr. Erdogan had traveled to New York with the intention of talking about Syria and the Kurds with Mr. Trump in a private meeting. He attended a group dinner hosted by Mr. Trump, but the two did not have a formal meeting there. Mr. Trump did say at one event that Mr. Erdogan had “become a friend of mine.” The telephone call between the two on Sunday might have been organized as a substitute for the meeting that never took place.

At best, that’s approval of Erdogan, not of the invasion. All it says is that Trump wanted the troops out in the likely event of an invasion. It doesn’t say or imply that he approved the invasion, or “gave approval for” it, in any sense of approval or endorsement. The reporters’ use of the word “tacit” in the phrase “tacit approval” just seems like a transparent way of bypassing the fact that they provide no actual evidence for their claim.

It’s worse than that. Here is the opening paragraph of the article:

WASHINGTON — In a major shift in United States military policy in Syria, the White House said on Sunday that President Trump had given his endorsement for a Turkish military operation that would sweep away American-backed Kurdish forces near the border in Syria.

There is no hyperlink for “said on Sunday” or “given his endorsement.” The hyperlink for both “Syria” and “President Trump” go to the same article, which says this:

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” the president wrote on Twitter. He did not explain what would be off limits, but aides insisted he had not given a green light to an invasion.

You might take Trump’s “if Turkey does anything that I…consider to be off limits” to imply that he was approving the part of the Turkish invasion that he didn’t regard as “off limits.” But that’s very far from a necessary implication. The claim is consistent with saying that he has no opinion on the invasion as such, but that if it were to cross certain limits, he would take action. It doesn’t provide evidence that he approved or endorsed the invasion. Even with this president, whose tendency to inconsistency and dishonesty is a well-established fact, the “if Turkey does anything” claim obviously can’t provide evidence for approval if the claim itself is ambiguous and is followed by the clarification that it was not meant as a “green light” for the invasion.

Continuing:

A Defense Department official said the president’s threat to destroy the Turkish economy should make clear that Mr. Trump had not approved a Turkish attack on the Kurds. “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria,” Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “The U.S. armed forces will not support or be involved in any operation.”

The threat doesn’t make anything clear, but it should be clear enough that it doesn’t constitute evidence of approval.

The paragraph right after the preceding one:

But Republicans were not sure. Even after Mr. Trump recalibrated his message, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, warned against “a precipitous withdrawal” that would benefit Russia, Iran, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Islamic State. Mr. McConnell sharply urged the president to “exercise American leadership.”

McConnell’s statement has nothing to do with certainty or uncertainty about Trump’s approval or non-approval of the invasion. It’s a claim about the consequences of withdrawing American troops. “But Republicans were not sure” is a red herring that confuses the issue.

Continuing:

In this case, Mr. Trump seemed to be responding instinctively to an unexpected comment by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey near the end of a telephone call on Sunday that otherwise focused on trade and defense assistance. Mr. Erdogan, who has long threatened to send troops over the border against Kurdish fighters allied with the United States, told Mr. Trump that he was finally moving forward.

Mr. Trump told Mr. Erdogan that he did not support an incursion, according to aides. But rather than hold back Mr. Erdogan anymore, Mr. Trump got off the call and promptly issued a late-night statement that he would pull out about 50 American special operations troops near the border who have served as a trip wire deterring Turkey from sending forces into Syria.

How is any of that evidence for, or even consistent with, the claim that Trump approved or endorsed the invasion?

Another link in the article goes to Trump’s Twitter feed, as though that helped. But it doesn’t.

I’m not going to bother excerpting the whole thread here, which goes on for awhile in similar vein. Agree or disagree, it’s obvious what Trump is saying, and obvious that exactly none of it constitutes approval of the Turkish invasion. The most obvious interpretation is also the simplest one: Trump says that he staved off the Turkish invasion for three years, but given Erdogan’s insistence on initiating it, has now acquiesced in it and withdrawn American troops from Syria. Nothing in it says or implies approval of any kind. (That he hasn’t really withdrawn American troops from Syria is a legitimate accusation, but a separate issue.)

Elsewhere, Trump has famously responded to the invasion by saying, “Let them!” Here’s the relevant part of his speech.

No matter what you think about that, the claim excerpted above doesn’t provide evidence of approval for the invasion. The claim is that if two parties are fighting, the thing to do is stand apart from them, let them fight, and leave them to realize the pointlessness of their fighting. The clear tacit implication is they shouldn’t be fighting; the other tacit implication is that we are powerless in stopping them from fighting. There is no implication of any kind that he approves the Turks’ invading Syria.

I can’t say that I’ve followed every single link in every article on this topic published in The New York Times. But I have followed at least a half dozen specifically intended to prove that Trump endorsed the Turkish invasion, and looked at a bunch of articles in other supposedly reputable sources that say the same thing. Not one checks out. Not one even comes close to checking out. It’d be closer to the truth to say that every one contradicts the claim it’s supposed to support.

I’m the last person in the world to want to defend Donald Trump. But like Trump (though to lesser degree and in subtler ways) our press seems to thrive on mythologies, falsehoods, and clever deceptions. The “Trump approved the Turkish invasion” claim is one of them. It’s the fakest of fake news, bullshit through and through. Trump is a liar and imbecile, but he didn’t say what the press is claiming he said. Whether Trump is the one speaking or Trump is the one spoken of, we should have the cognitive wherewithal to see through bullshit like this. Truth usually is the first casualty of war. The way to ensure that it isn’t is to realize that it doesn’t have to be, and call out the people who make it one.

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