(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump on Saturday traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet with the families of four Americans killed in a suicide bombing in Syria earlier this week, his second such visit as president.
The president’s trip for the “dignified transfer” of the remains of the four Americans, including at least one woman, marked a sober moment at an inflection point for the administration and its policy in the Middle East. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and more than a dozen other officials.
“It’s the toughest thing I have to do, when I’m going to meet relatives of some of our great, great heroes who have fallen,” Trump told reporters as he departed the White House on Saturday morning. “It’s the toughest thing I have to do as president.”
At Dover, members of the media saw Trump and the other officials walk onto a C-17 military transport aircraft to participate in the transfer of the remains of Scott A. Wirtz, a former Navy SEAL who’d been working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. A military chaplain said a prayer aboard the plane.
Minutes later, a Navy ceremonial team carried the flag-draped transfer case off the aircraft and into a van. Back on the tarmac, Trump saluted and stared straight ahead as the transfer case passed.
The president was present at all four transfers; the other three were closed events in line with the wishes of the families.
In a surprise shift in December Trump said he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, declaring that Islamic State, who the Americans had been battling since the Obama administration, had been defeated.
Two American service members, a civilian employee of the Defense Department and a contractor for the department were among 19 people killed in the attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij on Jan. 16, according to U.S. Central Command, which oversees forces in the region. Three U.S. service members were also wounded in the bombing, which was claimed by Islamic State.
The Pentagon said its forces were on a “routine patrol” when the attack occurred.
“We will never forget their noble and immortal sacrifice,” Trump said during a visit to the Pentagon earlier this week.
The president made the visit to Dover amid a deepening domestic crisis over the longest federal government shutdown in history — and after he had blocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from visiting American forces stationed in Afghanistan, citing the funding impasse.
Trump forced the shutdown after Democrats refused to support his request for $5.7 billion to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Later Saturday, the president plans to make an announcement aimed at luring Democrats back to the negotiating table.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war through activists still in Syria, reported that the blast killed at least 16 people.
Charles Summers Jr., a Pentagon spokesman, said the attack showed that “ISIS remains a threat. We will continue to hit the remnants of ISIS hard to destroy any residual networks and ensure its enduring defeat.”
After announcing the American pullout, Trump qualified his assertion that Islamic State had been defeated to say that the terrorist group had lost territorial control of the self-proclaimed caliphate it once held.
On Saturday Trump said the U.S. has been “hitting ISIS very hard over the last three weeks” and that its efforts are “coming along very well.” Nevertheless, he said, the U.S. “should be pulling back” from the conflict.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally and an influential voice on foreign policy who has criticized the Syria plan, suggested the president’s stance emboldened Islamic State militants and “set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting.” He urged Trump to reconsider. Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned over the withdrawal decision.
Trump previously traveled to Dover in February 2017, shortly after his presidency began, for the return of the remains of a Navy SEAL who died during a raid in Yemen.
Margaret Talev and Tamara Thueringer
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