President Trump set off a firestorm Tuesday when he conducted diplomacy-by-tweet, with key lawmakers stunned at the president’s flippant approach to a growing Middle East crisis and even the Pentagon saying it couldn’t explain the president’s comments.
Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was left stunned and speechless when told by reporters of Trump’s tweets.
Told by a reporter that Trump accused Qatar of being a state sponsor of terrorism, Corker responded, in a notably lower register, “The president?”
Reporters caught Corker a few hours after Trump’s morning tweets, in which he took credit for the decision by Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries to cut off ties with Qatar, an ally that is home to a large base with as many as 10,000 U.S. military personnel.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding …. extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” he continued later.
The tweets were a huge surprise given that a day earlier, top U.S. officials had sought to downplay the dispute.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Monday it was up to the countries involved to work it out among themselves, a sentiment Tillerson reiterated Tuesday morning before Trump’s tweets.
A Pentagon spokesman on Monday said the United States was “grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security.”
Asked Tuesday how that statement squares with Trump’s tweets, the Pentagon had no answer.
“I can’t help you with that,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in response to a question about reconciling the president’s tweets with the earlier government statements.
No one appeared more stunned than Corker, however, who had a blank look for about 10 seconds when he was told the president had posted the tweets about Qatar on Tuesday morning.
“I, um, I want to go back and see specifically what he has said,” Corker finally said. A reporter later showed the chairman the presidential tweets on her phone, prompting him to shake his head.
“Our position generally as a nation has been that these things ebb and flow and they come up from time to time, but we work with all of the countries,” Corker said
It is unclear how the president’s remarks will affect an unfolding situation that would have huge implications for U.S. foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates announced Monday that they were pulling their diplomats from Qatar and closing all land, sea and air borders. Yemen, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government followed suit later Monday.
The countries cite Qatar’s relations with Iran and what they say is Qatar’s support for extremist groups such as Hamas and al Qaeda, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar maintains that the crisis is being fueled by “absolute fabrications” and is a “violation of its sovereignty.”
The United States has about 8,000 to 10,000 troops at Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar’s capital. The base is the United States’ largest in the Middle East, the forward headquarters of Central Command and the staging area for much of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
A former U.S. diplomat in the region said the inconsistencies between Trump’s tweets Tuesday and Tillerson and Mattis’s statements Monday would make it difficult for U.S. diplomats to do their jobs.
“Clearly SecDef and SecState were trying to put the focus on diffusing the crisis and not taking any clear sides; the president’s tweets do change that,” the diplomat told The Hill. “When you’re out there in a different time zone, it’s very difficult if the messages from Washington aren’t consistent. You can use different words, but having the same themes is very important.
“The thrust of our policy needs to be uniform to allow our diplomats to do their jobs. It puts diplomats in a very awkward position and means a lot of our diplomats are not going to be saying very much at all. It’s a tough environment in which to be practicing the art of foreign relations.”
The diplomat did say Trump’s tweets appear to be consistent with the message he delivered during his visit to Saudi Arabia last month in which he called on Muslim nations to root out extremists and unite against Iran.
“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve,” he said during his speech.
But Trump also specifically praised Qatar during the speech.
“Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner,” he said.
He also met one-on-one with the emir of Qatar the same day and promised to sell the country “beautiful” weapons.
Some lawmakers have been critical of Qatar.
“I think that Qatar’s double-dealing caught up with them,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-S.C.) said of the Saudi decision.
Asked Tuesday about the situation in Qatar, a spokesman for House Foreign Relations Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) pointed to comments from a May 23 event at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“Qatar is, it is a country that is — from which financiers have helped finance al Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other similar organizations, including the Taliban, and I don’t understand why,” Royce said at the time. “We need to see a change in behavior immediately.”
Ellen Mitchell contributed.