KEY POINTS

  • Esper is facing bipartisan backlash over plans to pull troops from Africa
  • Sen. Graham reportedly told Esper he'd make his "life hell"
  • The Pentagon has disputed this account, describing the meeting as "productive"

President Donald Trump and his administration have recently begun floating the idea of a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Africa. That plan, however, is facing massive bipartisan pushback as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others threaten to battle the Defense Department over any such move.

Over the past weekend, Graham, alongside Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., confronted acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper behind closed doors at the annual Munich Security Conference to “forcefully” express their willingness to resist the removal of troops from Africa’s Sahel region.

Graham at one point promised to “make your life hell” if Esper pursues this plan, sources familiar with the discussion told NBC News. Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon’s press secretary, disputed this account. She said that she was in the room at the time and “that was never said” by Graham, instead characterizing the meeting as “a productive conversation with bipartisan, bicameral members of Congress.”

The U.S. has roughly 1,000 troops in the Sahel region at present. They are generally tasked with combating militant extremists groups, including Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, providing support to local and international allies and conducting drone strikes against insurgents.

Graham reportedly argued that the U.S.’ Sahel region operations are, in the overall defense budget, a very small portion – almost $50 million out of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget. The senator argued to Esper that it should be possible to afford to remain in Africa.

If Graham’s terse exchange with Esper did transpire as described, it would represent a less than characteristic break with the Trump administration in recent times. During the impeachment process, Graham was a fierce defender of the president, frequently going to bat for him.

It might not be entirely surprising, however, as Graham had previously taken the Pentagon to task over their plans to pull U.S. troops from Syria. Last year, Graham reportedly had a “tense” discussion with then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on the matter; those familiar with the meeting said Graham allegedly used profane language and warned that Shanahan should see him as “an adversary.”

Lindsey Graham Republican U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called Donald Trumps remarks about Fox journalist Megyn Kelley "an affront to all women." Pictured: Graham participates in the Voters First Presidential Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire, Aug. 3, 2015. Photo: Reuters