Trump visits Iraq in first trip to combat zone as president

President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE made an unannounced trip Wednesday to Iraq, his first visit to troops in a combat zone as president that comes amid roiling criticism of his national security strategy.

Trump delivered a speech to roughly 100 uniformed service members at an air base west of Baghdad and later defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, which angered many of his allies.

“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump told reporters traveling with him. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them.”

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He said that the U.S. could use Iraq as a regional launching pad to carry out operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a fight Republicans accused him of undermining by his decision earlier this month to pull out of Syria.

“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,” Trump said.

Trump and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpTrump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump steps up attacks on 'Squad' after post-rally furor Trump says he doesn't care if attacks on 'Squad' hurt him politically MORE also used the roughly three-hour trip to deliver holiday greetings to service members in Iraq, where the U.S. has kept a sustained military presence since the 2003 invasion launched by former President George W. Bush.

The first couple entered the dining hall on base to cheers and applause and they spent time speaking with service members and posing for selfies after the president received a briefing from military and diplomatic personnel.

The president signed several red “Make America Great Again” hats service members had brought as well as a “Trump 2020” patch.

Presidential travel to overseas combat zones is typically shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Reporters agreed to keep details of the visit under wraps until the president was done talking to the troops.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed the visit in a Twitter post on Wednesday afternoon.

Trump had come under intense criticism for not visiting U.S. troops fighting overseas, even though he speaks frequently about his support for the military.

Before heading to Florida for Thanksgiving, Trump vowed he would visit troops, but did not specify a date or specific location.

“I'm going to a war zone,” the president told reporters at the time.

Trump on Wednesday appeared to concede his personal safety was one thing that kept him from visiting combat zones.

“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 told reporters. “So did I have a concern? Yes I had a concern.”

Trump also said previous attempted visits were cancelled for “security reasons” because “people were finding out” he was planning to go.

Such combat-zone trips are customary for presidents in the post-9/11 era. Bush and former President Obama both made multiple unannounced visits to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during their eight years each in office.

But winding down U.S. involvement in foreign wars has been a signature issue of Trump's presidency, making it unclear about whether he would visit a combat zone.

“We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” Trump told reporters in Iraq. 

The trip this week comes during a tense time for the commander in chief and his national security officials, who have been critical of the president's decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Syria, draw down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and push out widely respected Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Watchdog: Former Pentagon spokeswoman misused staff for personal errands MORE.

Trump has not called for a swift troop withdrawal in Iraq.

More than 5,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in the country in support roles for Iraqi forces fighting the remnants of ISIS, a militant group that Trump declared defeated in Syria even though U.S. officials say it still poses a threat there and across the Middle East.

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Trump's trip to Iraq began when Air Force One left just after midnight from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C. The presidential jet landed under the cover of darkness on Wednesday at the Al Asad Airbase.

The White House was eerily quiet before Trump's visit was made public. Many staff offices were empty with the lights off, and no Marine was stationed by the door of the West Wing, indicating the president was not in the Oval Office.

Trump did not tweet on Wednesday after spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day blasting out messages from his account.

The president canceled a Christmas visit to his Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida and stayed in Washington due to the partial government shutdown that began Saturday. The Senate is not expected to reconvene until Thursday, giving Trump a window to make the troop visit.

The funding impasse causing the shutdown was triggered by Trump’s demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, adding to the sense of chaos surrounding the president ahead of the visit.

Trump addressed the shutdown controversy, saying he would not budge on his request for billions of dollars to build the wall.

“Whatever it takes. We need a wall. We need safety for our country,” he said.

In addition, Trump has been raging against his handpicked Federal Reserve chairman in response to the stock market’s slide, which economists have attributed to instability in the White House as well as the president’s trade war with China.

Updated at 4:15 p.m.