The White House has tried to avoid discussing a February skirmish between U.S. troops and Russian mercenaries in Syria, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from bragging about the Pentagon’s performance at a recent closed-door fundraiser.
The details of the battle remain classified, but speaking to donors in midtown Manhattan last Wednesday, Trump said he was amazed by the performance of American F-18 pilots. He suggested that the strikes may have been as brief as “10 minutes” and taken out 100 to 300 Russians, according to a person briefed on the president’s remarks, which have not previously been reported.
Trump often makes unscripted comments at fundraisers, and he revels in the exploits of the U.S. military. At a Republican National Committee fundraiser last fall, he told the crowd that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had “never lost a battle,” and he has bragged about the country’s nuclear superiority in confrontations with North Korea.
American officials have long feared that a clash with Russian forces in Syria would add tension to the already strained relationship between the two countries, and they intentionally avoided Russian targets last month when they bombed the country in response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. According to The New York Times, which last week provided the first detailed description of the battle, the confrontation lasted four hours and left between 200 and 300 pro-Assad forces dead.
White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah declined to comment on Trump’s remarks because information about the Syria strikes remains classified.
The fundraiser at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel was attended by about 100 of Trump’s top-dollar supporters, who paid a minimum of $50,000 a head to attend the dinner. Though protesters lined the streets outside, Trump was greeted warmly by supporters inside, including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Along with the Syria strike, the president talked about his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, earning a standing ovation from the crowd. He said he sympathizes with past presidents who broke their promises to move the embassy because of the aggressive lobbying he received from “kings and queens” urging him against the move, and that it took a leader of strength and conviction to follow through.
The U.S. marked the official opening of its embassy in Jerusalem earlier this month, an event attended by several top White House officials, including presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and her husband, Trump adviser Jared Kushner. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, responded to the embassy opening with protests that resulted in dozens of casualties when Israeli troops responded forcefully to their provocations.