President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria “crossed many, many lines” for him, and he said his attitude toward Syria and President Bashar Assad had “changed very much” as a result.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump told reporters during a news conference at the White House with the king of Jordan. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
The latest attack in Syria brought renewed pressure on Trump from some in his party to take bolder action against the regime there. His administration has come under scrutiny for its handling of Assad, particularly after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
The president declined to say Wednesday whether he plans to intervene in Syria directly but, describing himself as a “very flexible person,” said his opinion on the issue had shifted.
“I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact,” Trump said. “It’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened — that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
When Barack Obama was president, Trump publicly urged him not to take military action in Syria. But on Wednesday, he said Obama issued a “blank threat” when he called chemical weapons use a “red line” that Syria could not cross without consequences.
Earlier on Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urged the U.N. Security Council to take action in Syria. She described the violence as a “new low” for Assad’s regime and also took aim at Russia for its alliance with Assad.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, pressured the administration to offer a bolder response.
“This is the biggest test yet of the Trump presidency,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “The president has an opportunity to punish Assad in a way that President Obama never would.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he and Graham met Tuesday with Tillerson and came away reassured that the secretary of state did not intend to signal in his statement last week that he was comfortable with Assad remaining in power.
“He said to me that he realizes that we have got to take action against these elements that are committing war crimes as we speak,” McCain said.
Aides to Tillerson did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of McCain’s account. Tillerson has had opportunities to clarify his statement that the Syrian people control their fate, but he has not done so.
He issued a harsh statement on Tuesday blasting Assad over the chemical attack, but he did not say Assad had to leave office — only that he must be held “accountable.”
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