White House Veers From Missiles Coming to Diplomacy on Syria

VP Pence, not Trump, chairs national security meeting on response

An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State (ISIS) group on a People’s Protection Unit (YPG) position in 2014. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

The White House sent mixed signals Wednesday about its plans to respond to a chemical weapons attack in Syria, veering from warnings of inbound missiles to the possibility of a diplomatic outcome.

President Donald Trump began the day in extraordinary fashion, directly responding to a Russian official’s threat to shoot down any missiles the United States might fire at Syrian government targets. The commander in chief gave the impression an American response was imminent to the chemical attack that left over 40 people, including children, dead and dozens wounded.

In a tweet, he warned Russia to “get ready” because U.S. missile “will be coming.” He even taunted the Kremlin by promising to use America’s “new” and “smart” weapons in the coming strike.

As morning turned into afternoon, however, something changed.

First, a few miles away at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Trump administration officials were “still assessing” possible options. “We stand ready to provide military options,” he said, offering a carefully worded qualifier, “if they are appropriate as the president determined.”

[Obscured By Ryan’s Exit, US-Russia Tensions Boil]

Then came White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ late-afternoon briefing. She repeatedly said the president and his national security team continue to discuss “a number of options,” reminding reporters “all of those options are still on the table.”

Asked for a second time in a matter of minutes if no U.S. missiles might be fired and a diplomatic solution remains possible, she replied: “It could be, but there are a lot of other options that are also on the table.”

Another curious development: The president’s national security team held an afternoon meeting at the White House about Syria and the administration’s response.

“The president’s national security team met today,” she said, adding matter-of-factly: “That meeting was chaired by the vice president, [and] discussed a number of options.”

A White House official grew agitated with a reporter Wednesday evening when asked why the president did not lead that meeting, especially given his threat of an imminent attack on a sovereign country and the Russia taunting.

“Listen, before anything happens, there will be a meeting chaired by the president,” the official said. When asked again why Trump didn’t lead the Wednesday session, the official said: “Because he wasn’t in attendance, okay?”

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