The president made the comments during his press conference at the White House on Oct. 27 in which he shared details about the successful mission carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces on Oct. 26.
When questioned by reporters over his decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria, Trump said: “No, the pullout had nothing to do with this. In fact, we found this out at a similar time.”
Trump told reporters that capturing or killing al-Baghdadi had been a top national security priority under his administration and added that the former leader had died “like a coward.”
He continued: “This is the biggest one, perhaps, that we’ve ever captured, because this is the one that built ISIS, and beyond, and was looking to rebuild it again … very, very strongly looking to build it again.
“That’s why he went to this province; this is why he went to this area.”
Following Trump’s remarks, Senator Lindsay Graham said in his own press conference that he can understand the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The Senate Judiciary Committee Chair had previously criticized Trump over the move.
Speaking at the White House, Graham said: “When it comes to what’s happening in Syria, I like what I see. The president’s position and my position is really not that far off.
“We really don’t need a bunch of Americans in the safe zone. The international community should do that.”
Graham praised the president for “changing the rules of engagement” when it came to the war on terror and his determination to destroy the caliphate.
“When it comes to terrorism, the president changed the rules of engagement,” he said. “Do you think the caliphate destroyed itself? He made a conscious decision when he went to Iraq to change the game when it came to destroying ISIS. He’s had a determination to destroy the caliphate unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”
Graham said the Trump administration now has a plan in place to prevent Syrian oil from falling back into the hands of remnants of ISIS and also reduce the presence of U.S. troops within the country by allowing to local people to get their “skin in the game.”
He added: “What I see happening in Syria makes sense to me, the president destroyed the caliphate, he’s asking others to do more and he’s right when it comes to Turkey. I think the invasion has been disruptive but at the end of the day, if we can continue to partner with the Kurds, secure the oil revenues—for their sake, not Iran’s sake, not for ISIS’s sake—and help pay the costs of operations, [it] makes imminent sense to me.
“The SDF will get more money if we can modernize the oil fields. We’re not going over there to enrich America. We’re over there to help our allies, deny our enemy resources.”
Graham’s remarks came as the New York Times reported that the successful al-Baghdadi mission had “occurred largely in spite of” Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, citing numerous unnamed officials.
According to the New York Times: “Trump’s abrupt withdrawal order three weeks ago disrupted the meticulous planning underway and forced Pentagon officials to speed up the plan for the risky night raid before their ability to control troops, spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared with the pullout, the officials said.”
However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Oct. 27 said this had not been the case.
Speaking to CNN, he explained: “The withdrawal was prompted by the fact that President Erdoğan of Turkey made a decision that he was going to attack, regardless, and seize a safe zone, if you will, between Turkey and Syria. And we were opposed to that, vehemently, and protested as much.”
He continued: “Our concern was that Turkey’s actions, as unwarranted as they were, would cause us, them, others to lose focus on the defeat ISIS mission.
“That’s the reason why we went in, and that’s the reason why we’re still there.”
Esper said that he had deliberated options for the operation in meetings with the president, along with the commander of central command, Kenneth F. McKenzie, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley. He said the decision to proceed with this operation was made late last week.
“There’s concerns always when you have a target like this that it’s fleeting. And that’s why I think as the stars aligned over the past week, the decision was made to go after him.
“And as a new leader and leaders pops up, we’ll go after them as well,” Esper said.