Senior Trump administration officials did not disclose to lawmakers any long-term plans for dealing with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad or the years-old conflict in his country, further complicating President Donald Trump’s relationship with Congress.
Republican and Democratic senators expressed surprise and frustration, after a classified briefing Friday, that the new president and his team have no strategy for what comes next, following a Trump-ordered Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to a reported Assad government chemical attack that killed dozens of the country’s own civilians.
Several senior senators said there was no talk of a long-term plan during private discussions they had Thursday and Friday with Trump and senior White House officials.
The president decided to order the strikes after what his chief spokesman, Sean Spicer, called a “72-hour evolution” from being open to letting Assad remain in power to deciding he needed to send the Syrian leader a message after seeing images of dead infants on television. But there is no evidence that his national security team is ready to present Trump with a point-by-point strategy on how to deal with the Syrian conundrum.
That has even some Republican lawmakers expressing concerns.
“I wish we were further along,” Senate Armed Services member Roger Wicker said after emerging from a classified briefing with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr.
“I think the administration will be getting back to us on that,” the Mississippi Republican said in an uncharacteristically terse manner.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, an Intelligence Committee member, told reporters following the closed-door session that “we don’t have the benefit of a broader strategy to work with.”
Pressed by reporters about whether the White House should seek congressional authorization for additional strikes like the one Thursday night, or even U.S. military ground operations, the Texas Republican said that any effort to craft and pass a force-authorization measure “is going to require a strategy.”
Lawmakers’ efforts to craft a narrow authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, in Syria at the behest of then-President Barack Obama in 2013 fell apart because the 44th commander in chief “didn’t have a strategy,” he said.
Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, seemed reluctant to support any American military operations in Syria that would directly involve troops until the White House laid out its long-term plan.
“We don’t want to send anyone in harm’s way without a strategy,” he said. “Is it to defeat ISIS? Or is it regime change?”
Democrats joined their GOP colleagues, saying White House and military officials have no firm strategy for what to do next.
Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons shook his head when asked if Dunford and others presented a plan in the briefing.
“Literally, last week Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson and, I believe, President Trump were indicating that they could tolerate Assad remaining as the leader of Syria,” the Delaware Democrat said.
“After this gas attack — which is far from the first — Trump seems to be deeply affected by it, and to have made a complete 180-degree change in his views in how to respond,” Coons said. “I don’t think the administration has a thought-through strategy about how to avoid having this widen into a dramatically more complicated regional conflict with Russia, with Iran, and with ISIS.”
Asked if he is concerned Trump and his team are now making things up in Syria as it goes, Coons said: “There is not yet a clear strategy that has been conveyed to Congress. … So I think we’ve got more unanswered questions than before.”
Two possible next steps for Trump could be establishing no-fly and safe zones to protect civilians there. But Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake told reporters those kinds of things were not “discussed at all” in Friday’s briefing.
Spicer briefed reporters in Florida, where Trump has been hosting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, but declined to answer a question about the president’s possible future plans in Syria. A White House National Security Council spokesman had yet to respond to a question about the administration’s long-term planning.
After pounding a Syrian air base with nearly 60 cruise missiles without any strategy for what to do next, lawmakers of both parties could grow frustrated. Trump is already in a fight with various House GOP factions over health care.
As of now, White House officials have reported that Trump has no plans for new strikes, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said.
“This isn’t part of a plan for us to be further engaged on the ground or anything like that and I worry that some people may think that’s the case,” the Tennessee Republican said. “It’s just not.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Wicker both said Vice President Mike Pence is expected to brief lawmakers soon with more details of the administration’s plans.
“It was fuzzy in terms of where to go from here,” said Engel, a New York Democrat. “The vice president will be laying out — whatever — in the next few days.”
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin summed up the sentiments of the day.
“If anybody thinks they know the defense strategy of the president of the United States,” the Illinois Democrat said, “I wish they’d sit me down and share it with me.”
Rema Rahman and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.