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Trump Returns To White House After Unannounced Trip To Iraq


President Trump is back in the United States after a brief, surprise trip to Iraq. This was Trump's first visit to a combat zone as commander in chief. His message to U.S. troops in Iraq sounded, well, much like his message back at home.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will honor your service by doing everything in our power to defend our homeland and to stop terrorists from entering America's shores, and that includes strengthening of our borders. I don't know if you folks are aware of what's happening. We want to have strong borders in the United States, and Democrats don't want to let us have strong borders. Only for one reason - you know why? Because I want it.

GREENE: All right. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith was on the trip to Iraq. And she has landed at Joint Base Andrews, where she joins us. Tam, welcome back.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thanks, glad to be back.

GREENE: Pretty quick round trip to Iraq. Tell us about it.

KEITH: Yeah, so we were only on the ground in Iraq for about three hours. It was a secret trip, which means the reporters that were along were given notice in person not over the phone. We were only allowed to tell two people - one editor and one spouse. Well, we only have one spouse.

GREENE: That's true (laughter).

KEITH: So one editor and our spouse - and then we came to Joint Base Andrews. Air Force One was parked in the hangar not on the tarmac. It took off, basically, right out from the hangar. The president had snuck out of the White House and traveled by motorcade. And when we landed, we had to have all of our shades drawn down. The lights were off. It was completely dark when we got off Air Force One. It was unlike any other trip I've ever taken on Air Force One.

GREENE: Wow, a lot of precautions for security, I guess.


GREENE: So, you know, I've seen some of the images - I mean, so many selfies taken by U.S. service members there with the president. I mean, how was Trump received by the troops?

KEITH: He was well-received. There was a dining hall where troops were eating and waiting for a special visitor. And when he walked in, they gave him a standing ovation. There were a bunch of people who had the red Make America Great Again hats. There were autographs and selfies. There were some people that looked like they weren't as thrilled as others. But generally speaking, it seemed like the troops were happy to see the president and have him there wishing them a Merry Christmas.

GREENE: Well - and what a moment. It's not just the holiday, but it's a moment when a lot of his military decisions have been questioned, you know, by military advisers and others - his pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria, a lot of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. How did he confront these questions there on the ground in Iraq?

KEITH: Well, he defended his decision to pull all American forces out of Syria. He said, this isn't some rushed thing. I've been trying to do this for a year and a half. And every six months, the generals would come back and say, can I have another six months? And this time he said, nope. I'm not going to give you another six months. I asked him, you're here in Iraq. Are you also considering pulling forces out of Iraq? And this is what he said.


TRUMP: No plans at all, no. In fact, we can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.

GREENE: Pretty firm, it sounds like.

KEITH: Right. And there was one thing that was interesting, which is that he had been saying that ISIS is completely defeated. There in Iraq, he was saying that ISIS was very nearly defeated, that the caliphate was almost gone.

GREENE: Slightly different assessment.

KEITH: Slightly.

GREENE: Interesting thing - he did not meet with Iraq's prime minister on this trip.

KEITH: That's right. And there has been a little bit of a disagreement over why. The White House says that they were only able to give the prime minister two hours' notice because of all of these security precautions and that they simply just couldn't get the logistics together to have him come over. The prime minister's office says that it was supposed to be a formal meeting in reception. But there was a divergence of views about how to organize it, and so it ended up being a phone conversation.

GREENE: NPR's Tamara Keith just back from Iraq. Tam, thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.