President Donald Trump made a surprise visit to American troops in Iraq on Wednesday, his first journey to an active combat zone since he took office.
The president, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump, spent three hours on the ground with U.S. forces and met with the U.S. ambassador and commanders on the ground.
The unannounced trip comes at a time of change in the region following the president’s announcement earlier this month that he will withdraw American troops from Syria — a heavily criticized move that prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump said on Wednesday that he had “no plans at all” to remove U.S. forces from Iraq, while defending his decision to bring them home from Syria.
“I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It’s time for us to start using our head,” Trump said at the Al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad.
He said Iraq can still be used as a base to stage attacks on ISIS militants if needed, saying that the U.S. can attack “so fast and so hard” the terror group “won’t know what the hell happened,” the Associated Press reported.
Making his first visit to a troubled region, Trump said he was more concerned for the people accompanying him to Iraq than he was for himself, the AP reported. He made the 11-hour flight on a darkened Air Force One with lights off and window shades drawn, accompanied by military jet escorts.
Asked whether he’d had any concerns about the trip, Trump responded that he had been worried about the the institution of the presidency and first lady’s safety, as well as the night timing.
When the president entered the dining hall at the Al-Asad base, he received a standing ovation from troops present, according to reporters on scene.
Before Wednesday’s trip to Iraq, Trump had taken some heat from critics for being the first president since 2002 not to make a Christmastime visit to troops in 2018.
He was also criticized in November for canceling a trip to an American military burial ground outside Paris in November due to weather. Two days after that, he also skipped the traditional Veterans Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
The president admitted to Fox News’ Chris Wallace at the time that he should have gone to Arlington, and said he hadn’t visited a combat zone because he has “had an unbelievably busy schedule,” adding, “I will be doing it.”
In October, Trump told The Associated Press that he did not think it was “overly necessary” to visit a military base in a combat zone, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’ve been very busy with everything that’s taking place here,” Trump said, referring to domestic issues. “But it’s something I’d do. And do gladly. Nobody has been better at the military.”
At this point in their presidencies, President Barack Obama had visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush had visited Iraq just eight months after the start of the war in 2003.
Trump has often tried to distance himself from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, referring to them as failures of his predecessors and describing the missions in both countries as “a total shame,” according to The Washington Post.
Trump’s own military service has been heavily scrutinized from the time he announced his candidacy. Trump reportedly received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War: Four for education, and one for having had bone spurs in his feet.
The New York Times on Wednesday reported that Trump’s diagnosis of bone spurs could have been given as a favor from Dr. Larry Braunstein, a foot doctor who rented a ground-floor office from the Trumps in Jamaica, Queens.
Braunstein died in 2007, but his daughters told the paper that their father frequently told the story of having helped Trump receive a military exemption during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Trump has said a “phenomenal” high draft lottery number ultimately that kept him from serving in the war. However, the Times notedthat Trump had been medically exempted for more than a year before the lottery began in December 1969.