President Donald Trump, a man who often spends hours every day watching TV, kept talking about the pictures of the chemical attacks in Syria Tuesday – ones he was given in briefings, but also the ones he saw flashing on the screen. And he remarked to friends and associates about how Barack Obama looked “weak, just so, so weak,” as one adviser recalled it, when he condemned the Syrian regime but backed off on military action. Trump was determined to not make that mistake.
“You could be Barack Obama, or you could be Donald Trump,” Newt Gingrich, a top adviser who keeps in touch with Trump and his aides and is writing a book on the president, said by way of explaining the president’s decision to send missiles into an airbase suspected of launching the chemical attack.
Yet the president’s decision to strike Syria was hardly an expression of a dramatic shift in position for Trump, who campaigned against intervention, aides and advisers say. Even Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to call for the ouster of Bashar Assad, a man who Trump labeled a brutal, fierce dictator.
In conversations Friday with five aides and advisers inside and outside the White House, including some traveling with the president, it was clear that the president remains leery of intervention – but that he also hasn’t grappled extensively with his own foreign policy doctrine, and seems to be malleable based on the situation. Several said they were unsure whether the president would authorize strikes on other countries in similar circumstances.
The president, always wary of looking weak, was concerned about being lampooned like Obama was – Trump himself mocked Obama fiercely for his decision to not launch airstrikes on Syria in 2013 after laying down a “red line” – and was also preoccupied with the photos in the attack. Several people close to him say he repeatedly brought up the photographs and saw the episode “as a test,” one adviser said. One adviser said he had spoken about Syria occasionally for months, pondering what to do, even speaking about it during the transition.
“He felt like he had no choice,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who spoke with Trump Thursday night after the airstrikes. “When you’ve got a brutal dictator and the United States credibility at stake, he felt like the U.S. had to do something. I’m very proud of him.”
People who have spoken to him said he seemed to be wrestling with foreign policy issues and the need for America to be more aggressive and collaborative, shifting from the “America First” rhetoric of his campaign. “I have seen a positive evolution on China, on NATO, on Syria,” Corker said.
Trump was first told about the attacks during his presidential daily briefing on Tuesday morning, according to White House spokesman Sean Spicer. He asked a number of questions, including how the United States could be sure what happened and who was responsible. He also asked how the missiles work and how many he needed to use – and how other countries, like Russia, would react to a U.S. airstrike. He didn’t seem committed to taking action, but wanted to hear more.
Several people say Trump heavily relied on Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who kept in touch with him several times a day and answered his questions in “straightforward, to-the-point ways,” said one administration official. All three advisers supported the strike and wanted the president on board.
Several top officials, including Tillerson, told Trump it was important to strike the exact airfield where officials believed the gas was made and the planes flew from, according to two people, including a senior White House official. That would make the attack easier to justify and deem it “proportional,” a word they saw key to ensuring it was legal.
There was a small huddle in the White House Tuesday night, where Trump asked more questions. He again convened Wednesday afternoon with aides, who brought back detailed plans on how to carry out “strike packages,” according to another official familiar with the discussions.
“He was not good with it then,” this official said. Another person familiar with the evolution of Trump’s thinking through the week said “while I think he was leaning towards it, he wasn’t ready to pull the trigger.”
In the midst of the debate, Trump pulled his chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is leery of military engagement, off the National Security Council. Bannon wasn’t “vociferously opposed” to the strikes but was more skeptical than others, according to the official familiar with the discussions.
On Thursday, Trump arrived in heavy rain to Andrews Air Force base and brought a national security team, who joined him in a cabin aboard Air Force One, where they ate grilled flank steak sandwiches and vegetable potato chips on the way to Florida, for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump was increasingly determined to move forward with the attack, though he indicated in brief comments to reporters he was still undecided about what course to take. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and I guess he’s running things,” the president said. “So something should happen.”
After a final meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort soon after his motorcade arrived, Trump made the decision at 4:45, minutes before he strolled onto the patio and greeted Xi, grinning for the cameras.
Aides began putting the final touches on arguments to justify the strikes to the world. By saying the chemicals could make it to the United States and identifying the international agreements that Syria broke, they hoped to secure more international support – and head off an argument about why the strikes could be illegal, said one of the administration officials.
There was a conscious decision not to ask for permission from Congress, even though Trump had publicly said Obama should seek congressional authorization. Trump was determined, these people said, to keep his actions secret and several advisers said. He didn’t betray to several friends that he was considering a strike. He didn’t ask for advice from traditional Republican allies, like Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who seemed willing to give the president a pass. “It would be better if that happened in the future,” Corker said.
Corker said he understood why the administration didn’t ask for a congressional okay. “They felt like that for it to be effective, it needed to be in the immediate timeframe,” he said.
Russian military officials were alerted before the strikes as part of a “de-confliction agreement,” according to Tillerson and the Pentagon, but the White House made a decision to not tell Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, and they gave the military short notice. Trump has been accused of being overly friendly toward Putin, and U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.
Several outside advisers and friends to Trump said the attack was a good way to show some distance on the ties. The decision to unleash the missiles while President Xi was in town was not a message about North Korea, these people said, though outside advisers say they are sure the symbolism wasn’t lost on a president who cares about visuals above all. Some aides, like Bannon, questioned whether it was smart to do it on Thursday night. But Trump wanted them done “quickly,” said one person who spoke with him. One senior official said the administration wasn’t worried about China – and that had they continued to hold off, it would have looked like dithering. “We didn’t care what they thought,” this official said.
“He doesn’t like hesitation, whether it’s a military strike or a tweet,” this adviser said.
In keeping with the administration’s desire to keep the strikes secret, and amid concerns that they could dominate much of the evening’s agenda or cause a stir, he didn’t tell the Chinese president until after the dinner of prime rib, mashed potatoes and chocolate cake. Xi departed soon afterward.
After the missiles landed, Trump retreated to a secure room at Mar-a-Lago, where he sat with more than a dozen aides. On video conference were aides at another Florida hotel and Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the White House Situation Room with a number of top military aides, National Security Council officials, and other advisers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The team didn’t watch the strikes because the 59 Tomahawk missiles weren’t equipped with cameras. Instead, Trump was given by-the-minute updates by Dunford and Mattis as he sat next to Tillerson and secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross. Adviser Jared Kushner and others sat nearby. Trump looked stone-faced.
Two people in the room said he wanted to hear the specifics of what the missiles demolished and asked Pence and others what foreign allies and congressional allies were saying.
The briefing lasted about 20 minutes. Trump emerged into the Tea Room at Mar-a-Lago and spoke for about two minutes, again mentioning the photos.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” he said, seemingly explaining his shift.
Trump watched TV coverage and made a number of calls, to Corker and others. By Friday afternoon, Trump’s aides were touting the positive coverage his decision had received. The president already faced a rebuke from Russia – and Syrian planes were already flying from the airbase again Friday afternoon.
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