Defense Secretary Mark Esper faced tough questions Wednesday during a meeting on Capitol Hill with Republican lawmakers who have grown frustrated with the Trump administration’s policy in Syria, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting.
The sources said the back and forth at the meeting – hosted by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican – was tense at times as members demanded to know what was being done to protect Kurdish allies in Syria and block the resurgence of ISIS.
“There are a lot of Republicans who don’t agree with that policy,” one Republican member who was in the meeting told CNN adding that “it was a little heated” at times.
According to another source familiar with the meeting, multiple members challenged Esper on Syria, saying things like, “This is the worst foreign policy decision of my lifetime.”
Members lined up at microphones to ask questions and a majority of questions were about Syria. Lawmakers in the room applauded colleagues who spoke against administration’s decision to withdraw US forces, abandon Kurds and to effectively allow Turkey to invade.
One member in the meeting told CNN that it was a candid conversation with Esper as members sought answers about how the US planned to honor commitments made to the Kurds and how the US planned to keep ISIS at bay. That person said that they would not characterize the entire meeting as tense, but there was acknowledgment that people spoke frankly about strongly held views.
“It was a candid conversation,” the member said. “I wouldn’t call it contentious, but our members obviously have a lot of concerns about what happens next.”
Asked if it was one member being frustrated or many and the person said that “you’ve seen the statements from members. It’s not like there is just one who might have a disagreement.”
“We all have passions involved to make sure we don’t lose the gains that we made in the Middle East and especially with ISIS,” the person said.
The Department of Defense responded to descriptions of the meeting with a statement from spokesperson Jessica Maxwell saying the meeting invitation was first scheduled over the summer and that Esper discussed “the damage caused to the department” by continuing resolutions of government funding that leaves funding at current levels.
“This is a standard series hosted by Whip Scalise in order to introduce member of the GOP leadership to Cabinet members,” Maxwell said. “Former secretaries, including Secretary Mattis participated in the same engagement.”
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Turkey’s incursion of northern Syria “has nothing to do with us” and added that former US allies – the Kurds – are “not angels.” He also falsely claimed the Kurds “are much safer now,” despite his recent decision to pull US forces out of northern Syria – where the US was fighting alongside Kurds in the region.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.