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U.S. expands Syria retreat; Trump turns tales

Smoke rises Sunday over the Syrian town of

Smoke rises Sunday over the Syrian town of Tel Abyad after Turkish attacks, as seen from the Turkish border town of Akcakale. Credit: Getty Images / Burak Kara

'Worse by the hour'

Here's a look back over the past week since President Donald Trump ordered several dozen U.S. soldiers in northeast Syria out of the way so Turkey could invade and attack the Kurdish forces who have been America's allies against ISIS.

Trump said Turkey "will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area." They have taken no such responsibility, and hundreds of ISIS supporters escaped a holding camp. Trump said the U.S. took custody of "some of the most dangerous ISIS fighters.” The "some" was two of an estimated 11,000, according to The New York Times.

U.S. troops were supposed to be out of harm's way. But Turkish shells fell within a few hundred yards of a U.S. military outpost on Friday. U.S. forces believe it was deliberate. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it may have been, and that Trump has now ordered a broader withdrawal from northern Syria.

Trump called on Turkey to carry on its operation within "humane" limits. The Syrian Democratic Forces abandoned by the U.S. say a prominent politician, her driver, members of Kurdish security forces and several civilians were executed by Turkish-backed militants, and videos circulating online appeared to show the killings. Turkish airstrikes targeting civilians and a group of foreign reporters killed at least nine, according to human-rights monitoring groups and Syrian Kurdish officials. "It gets worse by the hour," Esper acknowledged.

While holding out a threat of sanctions that would shut down Turkey's economy, Trump has also tried to put a positive spin on the U.S.-Turkish relationship — "big trading partner," "good to deal with," "member in good standing of NATO."

Esper, while not disputing Trump's decision, took a darker view of Turkey while appearing on two Sunday TV interviews. "The arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible," he said. "I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will. We see them purchasing Russian arms, cuddling up to President Putin." 

Trump said Saturday his decision in the face of bipartisan condemnation made him "an island of one," but he stood by it in tweets Sunday. “Endless wars must end,” he said. If others want to intervene, “Let them!” For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Mattis warns of ISIS comeback

While avoiding direct criticism of Trump, former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that "ISIS is not defeated." On NBC's "Meet the Press," he continued: "We may want a war over; we may even declare it over," but "if we don't keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It's absolutely a given that they will come back."

Alluding to Trump's abrupt termination of the U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurdish forces, Mattis referred to his resignation letter from last year. “It talks about our security being tied inextricably to our alliances,” he said. “I don’t know what more I could say about how I think we ought to treat allies and how I think we should treat those who are adversaries.” 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Manhattan news conference he will introduce a joint resolution with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging Trump to “undo his decision, to do everything he can to protect the Kurds, to do everything that we must do to prevent ISIS terrorists from escaping.” See Ted Phillips' story for Newsday.

Quid pro quo? He dunno

After the top U.S. diplomat left in Ukraine after the ouster of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch warned in a text that "it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” more than five hours elapsed before the U.S. ambassador to the European Union responded.

"The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind," Ambassador Gordon Sondland replied to Bill Taylor on Sept. 9.

Now Sondland isn't sure he believes it. He intends to tell House impeachment investigators this week he doesn't know if Trump told him the truth when they spoke on the phone before he answered Taylor, The Washington Post reported. "It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s planned testimony.

Another much-anticipated witness, the anonymous whistleblower whose flagging of Trump's July 25 phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky led to the impeachment inquiry, now may not testify, even in secret, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff revealed Sunday. 

"Our primary interest right now is making sure that that person is protected," Schiff said on CBS' "Face the Nation." The record of the call itself is "the best evidence" of what happened, he said. For more impeachment developments, see Figueroa's story for Newsday.

Partisan lenses on Long Island

In an interview with Newsday's Tom Brune, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) said Democrats had "no choice" but to launch an impeachment inquiry after the rough transcript was released of Trump asking Zelensky for the "favor" of investigating the Bidens and alleged Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) told Brune that Trump made a "legitimate" request to Zelensky to investigate corruption in Ukraine, including whether it involved Joe Biden as vice president and his son Hunter as a highly paid Ukrainian company board member. 

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), on ABC's "This Week," said Trump's request was appropriate. “I absolutely believe that our countries should be working together to get to the bottom of what happened,” Zeldin said.

Trump holds Rudy close

Trump's bromance with Rudy Giuliani was looking shaky last week after the indictment of two of his personal attorney's associates in Ukraine intrigues, along with reports that federal prosecutors were looking at Giuliani, too. But it appears Trump has admitted Giuliani into his Victims of the Deep State club. 

During a Saturday night appearance with Fox News with host Jeanine Pirro, Trump called Giuliani “a great gentleman” and said he is still his lawyer. “I know nothing about him being under investigation. I can’t imagine it.”

Trump also tweeted: "So now they are after the legendary 'crime buster' and greatest Mayor in the history of NYC, Rudy Giuliani...Such a one sided Witch Hunt going on in USA. Deep State. Shameful!"

The New York Times reported that the president had lunch with Giuliani Saturday at Trump’s golf course in Sterling, Virginia. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into whether Giuliani violated foreign lobbying laws in his Ukraine dealings, according to the Times.

Janison: Follow the foreign money

The indictment of two of Giuliani's business associates last week indicates that the pernicious influence of foreign political money endures in the Trump "America First" era, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman allegedly sought to influence U.S. policy in Ukraine on behalf of themselves and one or more Ukrainian government officials who wanted the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv removed.

The president impugns the loyalty of those who would allow "open borders," he inveighs against "globalist" economics and the "deep state" and he proclaims the virtues of "nationalism." Yet here's money crossing oceans and borders into America.

Hunter punts foreign ties

Various Trump-Giuliani accusations of corrupt wrongdoing against Biden and his son fall in the range between evidence-free to outright false. But it's tougher to dismiss the impression that Hunter Biden's foreign business activities while his dad was vice president didn't look good because it created the appearance of potential conflicts of interest and that his famous name worked to his advantage.

Hunter Biden announced through his lawyer Sunday that he will step down from the board of directors of a Chinese-backed private equity firm at the end of the month, part of a pledge not to work on behalf of any foreign-owned companies should his father win the presidency.

Additionally, said attorney George Mesires: "Hunter will readily comply with any and all guidelines or standards a President Biden may issue to address purported conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such conflicts." He left his position with a Ukrainian energy company earlier this year when his father announced his candidacy.

What else is happening: 

  • New fault lines and tensions offer Russia fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its interests, The Associated Press writes. The U.S. pullout from northern Syria ahead of a Turkish offensive leaves Russia as the ultimate power broker. Also, new volatility in Ukraine could strengthen Russia's leverage over its neighbor.
  • Trump supporters who gathered at one of his Florida hotels, or at least some of them, were treated to a bizarre fake "snuff" video of the president carrying out a massacre inside the imaginary "Church of Fake News" against critics and political opponents.
  • A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll finds Elizabeth Warren leads Biden 31%-25% in states holding early contests for the Democratic presidential nomination.
  • Is Giuliani so distracted by last week's reverses that he can't keep track of his beloved Yankees? He tweeted Sunday that if starter James Paxton "can keep it under control for 6, we will go up 2-1." No, if they won Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, they'd be up 2-0.
  • Bernie Sanders on ABC's "This Week" sought to tamp down concerns about his recent heart attack and signaled plans to return to a heavy campaign schedule, reports Newsday's Scott Eidler.
  • Donald Trump Jr. threw a jab at one of the 2020 Democrats, tweeting, "Why is @KamalaHarris the only person that laughs at her jokes... always way to [sic] long and way too hard?" Harris' comeback: "You wouldn’t know a joke if one raised you."

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