STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of Elijah Cummings' fellow chairmen is on the line next. Adam Smith leads the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Chairman, good morning.
ADAM SMITH: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What has the House of Representatives and the country lost?
SMITH: A tremendous leader and a great human being. I served with Elijah for a long time. And most notably, I served on the Benghazi committee. He just - well, he was a terrific human being to be begin with, loved working with him - great guy but also an incredibly strong leader. He had incredible moral clarity and was very, very smart and articulate in expressing that. He will be missed by all of us.
INSKEEP: You know, some people handle power graciously, and some people let it get to their heads. How did he handle power?
SMITH: Well, obviously handled it very graciously. In fact, if you were to encounter Elijah Cummings, you know, just in a cafe, on the street, whatever, you would know he had great power. You know, he handled himself with incredible grace and dignity.
INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Chairman, I have to note that your work, of course, goes on. It's a dramatic news day, including in your area of expertise. We'll remind people that you lead the Armed Services Committee overseeing the development of the military. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are on a mission that involves the U.S. military.
After President Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria, Turkey moved in, attacked former U.S. allies there. Pence and Pompeo want Turkey to agree to a cease-fire in that invasion, but Turkey says it's not going to happen. Do you expect Turkey to comply?
SMITH: I don't. And it's really very confusing to figure out exactly what this mission is. And, you know, a group of us met with the president yesterday to discuss Syria and Turkey, as you know. The president pulled out and has said repeatedly in the last couple of days that at the end of the day, he really doesn't care what happens to the Kurds. He doesn't think it's in the U.S. national interest. Why is everybody basically getting so excited about it - and a whole series of rather bizarre explanations for why that's the case.
And then on the other hand he's like, yeah, I'm going to force Turkey into a cease-fire by putting sanctions on them. Well, why and how, exactly? It is not at all clear what exactly the policy objectives are of this administration in Syria and Turkey.
Now, we clearly have policy objectives there that are incredibly important, but having abandoned the Kurds, they're hard to pursue. And it's really hard to figure exactly what the Trump administration is trying to accomplish here.
INSKEEP: Now, Mr. Chairman, you mentioned you're in this photo that is famous in some circles now. It is a White House-released photo. There's a long table inside the White House with military and civilian leaders around it. And Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is standing up and pointing a finger at President Trump, who appears to be trying to speak at the same time. Pelosi came out of that meeting and said the president had a meltdown. The president, as is often his want, accused Pelosi of the same thing he'd just been accused of. But you were there. What happened?
SMITH: The president was the president. I mean, yes, it was - incredibly insulting. I mean, the way he speaks to people that he disagrees with, you know, it's just embarrassing, frankly, embarrassing for the country and anybody who works - I mean, I've got two teenagers, and if they talked like that, we would have a very serious conversation.
INSKEEP: What's one thing that he said?
SMITH: Oh, all of this you've heard. He called - well, he called her a politician. He called her Nancy in the most sarcastic way possible. And then after the speaker said, well, I don't mind being called a politician, he said, well, you're a third grade politician. And by the way, it was third grade, not third rate.
SMITH: And, you know, he basically just proceeded to insult her for the better part of a minute or two. And she decided she wasn't just going to sit there and take it. She stood up for herself and eventually left. Now, there was some pretty important substance on what we're doing in that area. And I stayed, as did Eliot Engel, Jack Reed and Bob Menendez as well as some Republicans to try to figure out what the president's policy was.
But, look. I mean, that's no way to converse on any level, much less the president of the United States, the speaker of the House, the Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, was there - a very serious subject. And the president, you know, just acted like a petulant child basically.
INSKEEP: Getting to that substance, though, since you said you stayed and discussed it, did you feel that that roomful of almost - most of the most important people in the U.S. government - did you agree on what to do regarding Syria and Turkey?
SMITH: No. And again, like I said, it's hard to say what the president wants to do. He spent half his time talking about, you know, how Turkey is - we don't want to let Turkey go over to Russia, you know. And then he says, well, I'm going to sanction them until they're bankrupt to force them to do a cease-fire. Well, if you don't want to force Turkey into Russia's hands, what are you trying to do?
No. 1 goal at this point - get a coherent policy. The president blew up what was a coherent policy by announcing the withdrawal from Syria and then abandoning the Kurds. What's the new policy? At this point, we just don't know.
INSKEEP: Is this a situation where Congress - I mean, you can push, but you really can't lead. You need the president to do something that makes sense.
SMITH: The president has the power. That's what I always say. That's why it matters so much who we elect president. The president has an enormous amount of power. And we're going to push as hard as we can, but he has more power than we do at this point, particularly with Mitch McConnell in the Senate not standing up to him on anything.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
SMITH: I appreciate the chance. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Adam Smith is a Democrat of Washington state and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.