President Donald Trump on Thursday seemed to signal he is resigned that he might have to order U.S. military action in Syria, two days after the embattled government there killed dozens in a sarin gas attack. Lawmakers, however, have yet to coalesce around a plan that addresses the situation.
The president finds the situation in Syria at the top of his agenda after Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces carried out the deadly strike that killed more than 80 people including children and infants. Trump said he feels a “responsibility” to respond, though he once urged his predecessor to avoid intervening in Syria. And any actions could further complicate his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s lone remaining powerful ally.
Perhaps for those very reasons, Trump’s message Thursday was less one of resolve and more one of resignation, fueled by his disgust over images of dead babies there.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” he told reporters on Air Force One, according to a pool report. “And he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen,” Trump said, referring to Assad.
“What Assad did is terrible. What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes and it shouldn’t have happened,” the president said en route to a 24-hour summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida.
“And it shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” he added.
For the second consecutive day, however, the still-new commander in chief offered nary a clue about what he and his national security team might be planning or even examining.
“I don’t want to say what I’m going to be doing with respect to Syria,” Trump said when pressed.
Before the president spoke aboard the executive jet, Republican senators weighed in about what might happen.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain told reporters he discussed the Syria attack with Trump on Wednesday. But the Arizona Republican did not present the president with a plan that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., laid out Thursday in a statement that urged grounding Assad’s air force.
Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters he is not sure an authorization for the use of military force passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks could be used as the legal justification for any such strikes in Syria.
Trump’s apparent shift toward getting involved contradicts advice he offered President Barack Obama in the late summer of 2013. Obama had just opted to get Congress’ approval before launching strikes in Syria after another Assad-ordered chemical attack crossed what the 44th president had said would be a “red line.”
Trump fired off a Sept. 5, 2013 tweet as Obama mulled his options that ended with this suggestion: “Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A.”
The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
That tweet was a preview of his “America first” campaign message, which has driven most of his days in office so far. But images of, as Trump himself put it Wednesday during a Rose Garden press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, “beautiful babies” had a “big impact” on his thinking.
So much so that Trump suggested his foreign policy and national security approach might not reflect any philosophy, but rather will feature decisions tailored to specific crises and situations.
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way,” Trump said. “And I am flexible. And I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing.
“And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said. “And I will tell you it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”