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Donald and Melania Trump make surprise visit to Iraq

10 Jun 2019 Daily Mail Online

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday — their first visit to a war zone since the sitting president took office nearly two years ago.  

They left from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland shortly after midnight with a small group of journalists and aides in tow. Trump was in the country for roughly three hours before the White House confirmed his whereabouts.  

The president delivered a speech to the rank and file at Al Asad Airbase, took selfies with the troops and met with military leaders in Iraq. 

'I want to come and pay my respects most importantly to the great soldiers,' he said of the visit. 'Great troopers we have here.'

Trump announced last week that he's pulling American troops out of neighboring Syria, because the U.S. had 'defeated ISIS' in the nation that's also mired in a civil war. 

'We've knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly,' he said of the U.S. assault on ISIS in Syria on Wednesday.

He claimed that in Iraq that the terror group had been 'very nearly defeated' altogether and Turkey and other regional powers will finish the job. 

'We're no longer the suckers, folks,' the president said of the decision to start packing up. 'We're respected again as a nation.'  

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday — their first visit to a war zone

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base

The secret trip came amid speculation that President Trump was not at the White House

He had not tweeted for hours and the marine that stands guard when he's in the Oval Office was not outside the West Wing

President Trump had said he would visit Afghanistan soon but visited Iraq over the Christmas holiday, instead, several days after announcing that he will be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base

President Trump said he does not plan to withdrawal troops from Iraq, however, and could use the site as the home base for future operations in the region, according to Bloomberg News.

'If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,' he proclaimed.

Al Asad is roughly 185 kilometers outside of Syria, where the president last week initiated a withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops. It is west of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, which is approximately 220 kilometers to the base's east.

Trump never served in the military, having received a medical diagnosis that he had bone spurs. It helped him receive an exemption from mandatory service during the Vietnam War. 

The daughters of the doctor who provided the medical excuse came forward before the president was known to be in Iraq on Wednesday to claim that their father offered the diagnosis as a favor to the Trumps. 

Never before had President Trump been to a war zone before his secret trip at Christmas that followed announcements that his secretary of defense and ISIS point man were leaving the administration. 

Both General James Mattis and Brett McGurk tendered their resignations after Trump's realignment of the United States' military posture in the country that's closely aligned with Iran and Russia.

Trump said Wednesday that his 'generals' had received multiple six-month 'extensions' to get out of Syria. 

'They said again, recently, can we have more time? I said, "Nope. You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time. We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly," ' he said of ISIS' operations in Syria. 'I will tell you that I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also and he’ll do it. And others will do it to. Because we are in their region. They should be sharing the burden of costs and they’re not.'

The president had spoken to Turkey's Recep Erdogan prior to his Iraq trip and was invited on the call to visit Ankara. He did not appear to have taken the leader who has begun amassing tanks on his border with Syria up on the offer before leaving the Middle East for a second undisclosed destination.

President Trump was several hours outside of Syria and and Baghdad during his trip to Iraq on Wednesday

President Donald Trump holds a red hat and pen to sign it with on Tuesday at a U.S. base in Iraq

The Trumps took photos with U.S. forces before the president delivered a speech to troops stationed at the base in Iraq

President Donald Trump waves as he leaves a dining hall after visiting members of the military at Al Asad Air Base

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet members of the military as they arrive for a hanger rally

In Iraq, the president described an odd-couple coalition of Turkey and Saudi Arabia that he says will finish ISIS off and rebuild Syria.

'The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,' he said, singing the same note as he had in tweets. 'It’s not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States.'

Trump said he didn't want the U.S. to be 'taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them' as he complained that 'they don’t pay for it, and they’re going to have to.'

'In Syria, Erdogan said he wants to knock out ISIS, whatever’s left, the remnants of ISIS. And Saudi Arabia just came out and said they are going to pay for some economic development. Which is great, that means we don’t have to pay,' he rejoiced. 'We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.'

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill had been highly critical of Trump's sudden withdrawal from Syria and have promised vigorous oversight of the policy he elected to share with the world before alerting them. They worry that he's making a mistake yanking U.S. forces at a time that generals like Mattis and people close to the situation like McGurk say is too early. 

Still, Trump confidently told reporters Wednesday, 'It’s time for us to start using our head. We don’t want to be taken advantage of anymore.'  

Legislators wouldn't have been alerted that Trump was traveling to Iraq this week, either, as the trip demands absolute secrecy to keep the president and his entourage safe. The president told reporters that he had actually planned previous trips to the region that had to be canceled 'because people were finding out' and it created a dangerous situation for the instiution.

'Pretty sad when you spend 7 trillion dollars in the Middle East and going in has to be under this massive cover with planes all over and all of the greatest equipment in the world and you do everything to get in safely. Pretty sad when you spend 7 trillion dollars and you have to come in through military escorts and all of the other incredible things that they did,' he griped.

US President Donald Trump kisses First Lady Melania Trump as he speaks to members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq

Trump had reportedly avoided a trip to the region out of fear that he could be killed, but he said Wednesday that he was afraid for his wife and not himself

Members of the military wait outside facilities where President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited Al Asad

Trump had reportedly avoided a trip to the region out of fear that he could be killed, but he said Wednesday that he was afraid for his wife and not himself.

'I had concerns about the institution of the presidency. Not for myself personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you,' he said. 'But if you would have see what we had to go through in the darkened plane with all window closed with no light anywhere. Pitch black. I’ve been on many airplanes. All types and shapes and sizes.'  

The president and first lady posed for selfies with the troops before President Trump delivered a speech to U.S. forces stationed there. President Trump said one of the young men told him in the dining hall that he'd left the military and reenlisted because of the current commander in chief.

'He came back into the military because of me,' Trump repeated. The president turned back to the solider to tell him, 'And I am here because of you.' 

Before the president addressed the troops in a hangar rally, the first lady greeted soldiers, telling them, 'I am proud of you.'  

Her husband told the United States will defeat the terrorists. 'If anything should happen at all, nobody will ever have suffered the consequences they had suffered,' he asserted.

A meeting with the Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, had also been scheduled for the stop that lasted three and a half hours but was cancelled. 

The flight to and from Iraq takes 11-odd hours to make and the president was not expected to return to the United States until Thursday, when lawmakers were also due to be back in Washington. It is currently in the throes of a government shutdown. 

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by National Security Adviser John Bolton, meets political and military leaders

Trump did no military service and claims to have opposed the original war in Iraq

The president was in Washington, D.C. this week, because of a government shutdown

He made surprise visit to a U.S. Air Base admit the shutdown that was expected to last until the New Year

First lady Melania had been in Florida but returned to Washington to be with her husband on Christmas

President Trump had said a month ago that he would visit Afghanistan at some point but visited Iraq first over the Christmas holiday, several days after announcing that he will be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.  

'It’s a place I have been talking about for many years, many many years,' he told journalists on Wednesday in a reference to his past claims that the U.S. shouldn't have waged war in Iraq after 9/11 and that it should have taken the oil as restitution. 'I was talking about it as a civilian,' he reminded.

The secret trip came amid speculation that President Trump was not at the White House, because he had not tweeted for more than 12 hours and the marine that stands guard when he's in the Oval Office was not outside the West Wing.  

In a statement posted on Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed the visit in a tweet shortly after the wire service Reuters published photos of the president.

'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,' she said.

President Trump suggested last month that he could visit a 'war zone' soon after a report claimed that he was avoiding Afghanistan out concern for his personal safety. 

'No, I'm going to a war zone,' the president told reporters as he left the White House over his Thanksgiving break.

He didn't say whether he intended to visit troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, or when he might do so. He said in an interview that he hadn't taken the trip yet because he'd been so busy his first 22 months in office.

'I’ve been very busy with everything that’s taking place here,' he explained. 

Previous presidents have scheduled closely-held surprise trips to war zones to visit with U.S. troops stationed overseas, sometimes timed to the holidays, including George W. Bush. The former Republican president made history when he visited the country in 2003 at Thanksgiving.

Former President Barack Obama made his first and only trip to Iraq three months after taking office in 2009. He made also surprise visits to Afghanistan in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

Obama's first Afghanistan visit came over Memorial Day weekend under the cover of darkness roughly 15 months into office. His White House claimed that he was spending the holiday at Camp David, only to gather reporters in secret at Andrews Air Force Base for the covert trip.

President Trump also left overnight from Andrews under a cloud of secrecy. Reporters traveling with him were barred from sharing their whereabouts until he had left the conflict zone. Credible reports on social media that Air Force One had been spotted in foreign air space, though, tipped observant news outlets off that a secret trip was afoot.

The president's national security adviser, John Bolton, and the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders were traveling with President Trump.

Senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, social media director Dan Scavino, spokeswoman Lindsay Walters and Melania Trump's chief of staff Lindsay Reynolds and spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham were also aboard Air Force One. 

Outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired marine general whose final day working for Trump is next week, did not join his boss on the unannounced trip abroad. Incoming chief Mick Mulvaney, who wears two hats now as Office of Management and Budget head and head of the West Wing, did not make the trip, either.

Mulvaey's office oversees the shutdown that affects a quarter of the federal government.

SWIFT EXIT: Trump announced this past week that he was pulling troops out of neighboring Syria immediately

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