ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Some members of the GOP are pushing back on President Trump today. He's getting some new criticism over asking Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, though the GOP still opposes impeachment across the board. Trump is getting a much harsher response in his party after a decision to pull back U.S. troops in northern Syria, which could endanger Kurdish troops that are allied with the U.S. President Trump tried to explain that decision at the White House this afternoon amid fears that Turkey might attack the Kurds.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If Turkey does anything out of what they should be doing, we will hit them so hard on the economy. But when you talk about soldiers, we only had 50 soldiers in the area. I think the area was - it's a very small area and - very small area. But we only had 50 soldiers there. I don't want them to be in a bad or compromising position.
SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us from the White House now. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with Syria. How is Trump explaining this decision?
LIASSON: Well, Trump is explaining it as that we've just been in Syria too long. ISIS - we defeated ISIS and the remainder of ISIS, and the prisoners held there should be someone else's responsibility, particularly the Europeans. He doesn't seem to be too concerned about the Kurds, who are one of our staunchest allies in the Middle East. He's basically called the conflict between the Kurds and Turkey a tribal conflict. He said, I don't want to take sides.
SHAPIRO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of the Republicans who is not aligned with the president on this, and he kind of sent the president a warning over his decision to pull back in Syria. Why are GOP leaders so upset about this?
LIASSON: GOP leaders are upset because the Kurds are a major ally of ours. This, remember, is why former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned - because the president, after another call with the Turkish leader Erdogan, threatened to pull out of Syria. Mitch McConnell said today a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, and it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup. Even House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is usually a staunch supporter of the president in every way, shape and form, said if you make a commitment, someone's fighting with you, we should - America should keep their word.
So foreign policy has been the one area where congressional Republicans are willing to push back against the president. We've seen this before with Saudi Arabia, with Russian sanctions. This is one place they feel emboldened to criticize him.
SHAPIRO: Although the Ukraine story arguably has a foreign policy thread, and their criticism has been more muted over the president's calls for foreign countries to investigate Joe Biden. That is, of course, the focus of the impeachment inquiry in the House. But today, we did hear another Republican senator speak out against Trump. How significant is that?
LIASSON: It's Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio - said that the president should not have raised the Biden issue on the call. It's not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent. But he said impeachment was too extreme, not the right remedy.
We've seen other Republicans land in this safe spot, saying, I think what the president did was wrong, but I don't think that he should be removed from office because of it. And I do think you're going to hear other Republicans saying, look; it's too close to an election. Voters should get to decide whether the president stays in office or doesn't stay in office, regardless of how wrong and inappropriate I think his call was.
We have heard other Republicans be even more critical. Mitt Romney called the call wrong and appalling. But what we don't know is if that's - if these are going to be - remain lone voices or they're going to be the start of something new.
The thing - the other thing we're noticing is that no one from the White House was on the Sunday shows this weekend defending the president. The White House defense seems unclear or even nonexistent.
SHAPIRO: Well, the Trump reelection campaign seems to be doing a lot of that work. They have put out TV ads attacking Joe Biden with a false allegation. Let's listen to a different part of that ad.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Democrats want to impeach him, and their media lap dogs fall in line. They lost the election. Now they want to steal this one. Don't let them.
SHAPIRO: Mara, what do you make of this strategy?
LIASSON: I think it's a strategy that the Trump campaign thinks will be very effective. This is what hundreds of millions of dollars can do. They're running these ads in the early primary states against Joe Biden. They - we know that polling on impeachment shows support for impeachment has gone up a little, but inside Trump's base, strong support for him has gone up. The base hasn't grown, but it has intensified in support of him.
And I can tell you that Democrats are nervous about these attack. They think Trump is getting a liar's dividend. In other words, the stories are debunked, but every time anybody mentions Biden and his son and Ukraine, it's kind of inside the media narrative. And it has the potential to undermine Biden's electability argument.
SHAPIRO: Just in our last few seconds, do you see Biden trying to take advantage of the situation?
LIASSON: He's trying. His camp will tell you they see it as an opportunity. It underscores his argument that he's the best candidate to go mano a mano with Trump in a general election. He's also spending millions of dollars on an ad in the early states saying that Trump should not be allowed to pick his opponent and face only the candidates he thinks he can beat.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.