RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, has reportedly left Turkey without meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Today Turkey's leader slammed the Trump administration's most recent decision to keep U.S. troops in Syria until certain conditions can be met. Erdogan called this a, quote, "serious mistake." This is what John Bolton said while in Jerusalem Sunday.
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JOHN BOLTON: We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again.
MARTIN: Independent Senator Angus King represents the state of Maine, and he serves on the armed services committee. And he is in our studios this morning.
Senator, nice to see you.
ANGUS KING: Good morning, Rachel. How are you?
MARTIN: I am well.
Are you clear on the Trump administration's Syria policy?
KING: No, are you (laughter)? I'm not. It's changed rather dramatically in the last several weeks. And it's, in fact, changed in the last few hours. Remember all this appeared to start back in December with a call between the president and Erdogan of Turkey. And that's when the president said, OK, we're getting out. One of the major concerns was that we were walking away from the allies of the Kurds, who have basically been our best allies against ISIS - they've literally taken bullets for us - and that we were leaving them to the tender mercy of the Turks, who feel that they're at war with them. So all of a sudden, we have this new Bolton doctrine of - we're not really leaving all that soon, and we've got to be sure the Kurds are protected. The fact that Erdogan didn't meet with him and that Erdogan has blasted this approach tells you what Erdogan really has on his mind, which is to wipe out the Kurds in northeast Syria.
MARTIN: So that means you are pleased, then, with the administration's current position - not to pull out, to protect the Kurds and try to defeat ISIS until leaving.
KING: Yes. I think that was the reasonable position. The president's position at the beginning was just based upon no strategy and, as near as anyone can tell, no consultation with anyone in the administration. In fact, I think most people believe that it was the breaking point for Jim Mattis, secretary of defense, who said, you know, this is such a bad policy, I can't continue. And now we have sort of the worst of both worlds. We have Mattis gone. Bolton's trying to repair it. Erdogan is blasting it. And the president, yesterday, was saying there's really been no change, which is hard to square with sort of where we are. So it's a very fluid situation but a very dangerous one.
MARTIN: I mean - so there are two conditions now, protecting the Kurds, as we just talked about, and defeating ISIS. These are the conditions Bolton has laid out before U.S. troops leave. On the ISIS question, President Trump, on December 19, tweeted as follows, quote, "we have defeated ISIS in Syria - my only reason for being there." So clearly, that tweet was not accurate. How close, though, is the U.S. to defeating ISIS in Syria?
KING: Well, that's hard to determine because ISIS, as opposed to several years ago, doesn't hold territory. But that doesn't mean they're not there. There are estimates - I've seen estimates ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 fighters in the region. Now, it's a pretty fluid border between Iraq and Syria in that area. So you can't really say they're in Syria or they're in Iraq. But there are a lot of people there with allegiance to ISIS with malevolent intent. So how many are there? It's hard to say exactly. But it's still...
MARTIN: But does that mean the timeline is going to be far longer than the 30 days that the president first articulated?
KING: Very, very likely. And the president's first timeline was now. You know, I don't how you define now, but it's not in months or years. Now we are talking about a longer timeline. And remember, Rachel, we're really only talking about 2,000 American troops - not a large deployment but an important one in the sense of being a barrier, or a buffer, if you will, between the Turks and the Kurds, a stabilizer of that region - very important to sort of moderating the influence of Iran and Russia. The original decision was a gift to Iran and Russia, basically. And I think, at some point, the president actually said something like, well, now it's up to you. And of course, Iran is one of our rivals, adversaries in that region. So leaving the field to them in terms of Syria, I think, was a strategic mistake.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about another issue concerning U.S. military deployments, this to the U.S. southern border. NPR has learned that additional American troops are expected to be deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border to construct or upgrade at least 160 miles of fencing. Do you support that idea?
KING: No. (Clearing throat) - excuse me - I think that's clearly a precursor to the president trying to end-run Congress and the political process and try to build a wall using the military. We have a process, and you go through appropriations. And it has to be approved. And to do that and to call this, require the use of the military, you have to ask - where else or what other duties would these military people be having that suddenly they can say - oh, we're just going to send them to the southern border? That's just - it's just not the way the process works.
Everyone's speculating on what the president is going to say tonight. He may well declare a national emergency under 10 U.S. Code 2808, which then allows him - or authorizes the use of military construction funds, to take them away from other authorized projects and apply them, in this case, to the wall. I think that's really a stretch. That provision requires the use of the - protection of the armed services. The courts will ultimately decide that, but that may be where he's headed.
MARTIN: Where is the opening to end the shutdown? Where's the compromise? You, as an independent senator - when you look to both sides, where is it going to give?
KING: Well, I think the first opening is he may declare a national emergency tonight and say, we're going to do this through the military, and therefore, we don't need the congressional appropriations. Therefore, we can sign these laws and put the government back to work. That could be the exit ramp that would enable him to say, I'm still a hundred percent in favor of the wall. We're going to build it, but we're just going to use a different method. Therefore, I don't need Congress. Therefore, we don't need the shutdown. That's one possibility.
Where else you compromise on this is very difficult. The problem isn't the money, Rachel; it's not the wall itself. It's the fact that there's no plan for this. There's no analysis. And we have a system where the president doesn't have the unilateral authority to just do things. This guy is not CEO of America, and it's not a family-owned company.
MARTIN: Independent Senator Angus King of the state of Maine.
Thanks for your time this morning, sir.
KING: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.