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Trump Plays Down Idea Of Quick U.S. Departure From Iraq


President Trump backed off a threat today to target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates for the killing of General Soleimani. That threat caused an uproar because going after those kinds of targets is against international law. But the president repeated his earlier complaints about it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to maim our people. They're allowed to blow up everything that we have, and there's nothing that stops them. And we are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what? If that's what the law is, I like to obey the law.

SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House.

Hi, Mara.


SHAPIRO: This is the first time we've seen the president since he explained his strike that killed Soleimani on Friday. What stood out to you about his remarks?

LIASSON: Well, those comments certainly were a walk back. There have been - there's been an uproar about his threats about the cultural sites. He made it on Twitter and again to a small group of reporters on Air Force One; really got a round of criticism. He seemed to be erasing yet another norm and undermining the U.S. role as a superpower that stands for more than just brute strength.

Earlier today, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell even said it was inappropriate. His top officials had tried to walk back the threat. Secretary of Defense Esper said the military would not be attacking cultural sites. So in the end, as you heard, Trump backed off, even though he did repeat his complaint that somehow it's unfair that the bad guys get to do all sorts of horrible things, and we are restrained by these laws.

SHAPIRO: There's been all this pressure on the administration to reveal the intelligence that led them to conclude that there is an - there was an imminent threat posed by Soleimani. Did the president shed any light on that?

LIASSON: No, he didn't provide any evidence for that claim, although he said that the White House would be sharing some of the evidence with Congress. He said it was classified. But he didn't explain whether there was an active plot that had been stopped. That's what the administration has been saying. He didn't explain how killing one general in the chain of command would stop an imminent attack. It's not as if Soleimani was a lone terrorist strapping on an explosive belt. But he did talk about Soleimani's past bad acts. He called him a monster. And in that sense, he said that the killing was justified.

SHAPIRO: Just in the last couple of seconds, any clarity on the letter the Pentagon sent yesterday about U.S. troops in Iraq saying people would leave the country, then backtracking?

LIASSON: Yes, he said that he eventually would like to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, but that is not what's happening now. He certainly has made no secret of the fact that he'd like to withdraw. He said, but if we did it now, it would give Iran a much bigger foothold in Iraq, which certainly is what all the experts say. And, of course, the Pentagon had already said that that letter was sent in error.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House.

Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.