How Trump and His Team Decided to Strike Syria

President Donald Trump appears to have been mugged by reality this week following Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons attack on his own people. The result? Assad’s regime—and in particular, the airbase in central Syria where his attack was launched—got a swift dose of reality in the early hours Friday morning.

“I ordered a targeted military strike on airfield in Syria from which the chemical attack was launched,” President Trump said in a statement to reporters Thursday night. “It is in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

Trump has clearly been affected by the details of the attack, which has killed and maimed scores of Syrians, including several children. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children,” the president said Thursday. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

How the White House Decided On the Strike

On Wednesday afternoon, the National Security Council convened in the White House, with President Trump in the chair, to discuss how the United States would respond to Bashar al-Assad. Just a couple of hours earlier, in a press conference in the Rose Garden, Trump had denounced in strong terms the Tuesday chemical-weapons attack by Assad on the Syrian strongman’s own people. “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly,” the president said.

The Pentagon’s plan, delivered by Defense Secretary (and former Central Command commander) James Mattis, at Wednesday’s NSC meeting: a hellfire of Tomahawk missiles on the airfield where Assad’s regime had launched the attack. If there was dissent among any on Trump’s national security team, nobody spoke up. “Everybody agreed that this was the option that they liked,” said an administration official with knowledge of the meeting.

So on Thursday morning, a number of national security officials went to work at the White House believing the strike was imminent. But only a small number of principals—President Trump, Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security advisor H.R. McMaster among them—had knowledge the strike would happen Thursday night.

A little more than 24 hours after Trump’s NSC meeting, two U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk land attack missiles at Shayrat airbase, targeting “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars,” according to a Pentagon statement. There appear to be no immediate casualties to either Syrian forces or those of Assad’s ally, Russia.

“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” said the Pentagon in its statement. “U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters Thursday night the Russian government was not contacted before the strike. Nor is President Trump expected to speak with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday.

Publicly, the Russians had backed the Assad regime’s incredible explanation for Tuesday’s attack: that the anti-Assad terrorist group Al-Nusra Front had smuggled a chemical-weapons depot into the country and Assad forces had inadvertently launched the nerve gas into the air while trying to destroy its enemy’s munitions. In private diplomatic channels, a Trump administration source says, Russians stuck by the laughable story, which reportedly annoyed American officials. It also emboldened the administration to act.

Xi’s Still There

Trump’s decision to launch the Syria strike the same night he greeted Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago is (I’m told) coincidental—though the swift show of strength from Trump will likely not be lost on Beijing in the long run.

Talks with Xi and the Chinese delegation will begin in earnest Friday morning, when officials from both countries will meet to discuss the wide range of issues, from economic to national security-related, facing China and the United States. Trump will dine with Xi at a working lunch at noon, where issues like North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capability may very well be on the menu.

Gorsuch At the Finish Line

The White House is trying to keep cool about a lone bright spot in its Capitol Hill agenda: Neil Gorsuch will very soon be an associate justice on the Supreme Court. During a pitched battle Thursday in the U.S. Senate, Democrats attempted to filibuster Gorsuch’s confirmation—something which had never been done along partisan lines. That’s when a unified Republican conference voted to change the Senate’s rules to remove the 60-vote supermajority requirement to close debate on Supreme Court nominations.

The final vote on Gorsuch’s confirmation is expected Friday afternoon, and Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the White House believe Gorsuch will sail through.

“Not cracking open champagne bottles yet,” said one White House aide when I asked if the West Wing was celebrating after Thursday’s Senate drama. The mood may be cautiously optimistic, but the successful nomination of Gorsuch is a big win for President Trump and represents the first true victory on Capitol Hill for the administration.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday the earliest Gorsuch would be sworn in would be Monday.

Song of the Day

“Alive,” Pearl Jam.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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