In 2013, Donald Trump repeatedly urged President Barack Obama against taking action in Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, warning that it would “bring nothing but trouble” for the US.
But President Trump, who recently said that he likes to be “flexible,” changed course this week when he ordered a strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure in response to a chemical attack that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria on Tuesday.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed reporters wondering about Trump’s evolution in thought on Friday, explaining that Trump was moved by footage of Syrians, including children, dying of symptoms related to nerve agent poisoning.
“He was very moved and found the event extremely tragic, so I think from the get go it was very very disturbing and tragic and moving to him,” Spicer said.
Spicer outlined the timeline for the decision-making process. He said Trump asked for more information on the chemical weapons attack on Tuesday morning and was presented with military options during a Tuesday-evening meeting of National Security Council deputies. The NSC principals met on Wednesday afternoon and discussed three options for a response.
Trump then met with Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and decided to act.
Trump made a statement after the strike and noted that “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” he said.
Earlier this week, Trump said that the attack had changed his calculus on Syria and Assad.
“That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact,” Trump said. “That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
But Tillerson was careful to portray the strike as a carefully calculated move rather than an emotional reaction on behalf of the president. Spicer said at the Friday press briefing that Trump was presented with several different options earlier this week and considered each with his national security team before deciding on the strike.
“I do not view it as an emotional reaction at all,” Tillerson told The New York Times. He said Trump decided that the US “could not yet again turn away, turn a blind eye” after Obama’s inaction in 2013.
Despite Trump’s “America First” campaign rhetoric and his 2013 warnings to Obama, Trump hesitates to ever appear weak, and Assad’s attack on Tuesday violates a deal struck under the Obama administration in which Assad agreed to remove his stockpile of chemical weapons.
Assad has used chemical weapons on other occasions in recent years, but this week’s attack was the most egregious since the 2013 agreement.
Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, reportedly also had a hand in Trump’s decision. New York Magazine reported that Kushner argued that Trump needed to push the Assad regime.
Trump’s decision to strike angered some of his hardlines supporters, and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was reportedly arguing against it. The New York Magazine report noted that Trump going against Bannon’s opinion seems to suggest his waning influence in the White House.
It’s so far unclear where Trump goes from here. Tillerson on Thursday cautioned against interpreting the strike as “a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” And Trump has not yet said whether he wants to take action to remove Assad from power.
Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria, told Business Insider that the strike would “either be a one-time, one-off, fire-and-forget retaliation for a heinous chemical weapons assault on civilians, or it will serve as a signal to the Assad regime and its allies that the free ride for mass murder in Syria is now over.”
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