- The President’s tone and message clashed with his most senior national security officials
- Rex Tillerson struck a moderate tone earlier in the day
“We had a decision to make,” Trump said, describing conversations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. “Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism.”
Hindering the ISIS campaign
The three Sunni Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE — moved with Egypt to cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, host to the one of the Pentagon’s largest military bases in the Middle East and a linchpin in the fight against ISIS.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters shortly before Trump’s remarks, said the Gulf countries’ land and air blockade of Doha is hurting the campaign against ISIS, an assessment Pentagon officials only partially corroborated.
“The blockade is hindering US military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS,” Tillerson said, without providing details. The US’ “expectation is that these countries will immediately take steps to resolve the situation,” he added.
“We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region,” Tillerson said Friday. He called on Qatar “to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors.”
Saudi Arabia and its counterparts accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region because of its ties to their Shiite rival, Iran, and its support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Qatar acknowledges its links to these groups, but denies that it supports terrorism.
“The Emir of Qatar has made progress in halting” support for and financing of terrorist groups, Tillerson said, “but he must do more and do it quickly.”
Trump, in contrast, was much more explicit in condemnation. “The nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” he said, speaking from the Rose Garden.
“I decided, along with secretary of state Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding, they have to end that funding and its extremist ideology,” Trump said.
The President said he helped those countries make the decision to break off relations with Qatar during his trip to Saudi Arabia last month. “Nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behaviors,” he said.
A White House official pushed back on the notion that Trump and Tillerson are not on the same page, saying of the President that “what he said was consistent with what secretary of state said.”
While the official said that the president “believes that the issue can be “resolved on terms favorable to the United States and United States’ interests,” that official also added that, “I haven’t heard him express concern about the issue of the base.”
The official didn’t address Tillerson’s claims that the blockade was hurting the anti-ISIS campaign, according to pool reports distributed by the White House.
Despite Tillerson’s assessment that the fight against ISIS had been impacted, Pentagon officials said there has been no immediate disruption. They warned, however, that their ability to make longer-term plans was being affected.
Qatar is home to 11,000 US troops and the Al Udeid Air Base, the main regional center for air operations against the terrorist group.
“Regular supplies are moving into the base there via air,” said US Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. Davis said the Defense Logistics Agency “is looking at a number of contingencies if the thing should come about, but at this point there’s no impact on our operations.”
“Qatar remains critical”
But Davis added that “while current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer term military operations. Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region.”