As a candidate, Donald Trump said in a February 2016 debate that he would have no problem telling children fleeing war-torn Syria that they could not enter the United States: “I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come.’”
But on Tuesday, as commander-in-chief, Trump saw images of those children gassed to death by their government in a rebel-held town. Setting aside his earlier bluster, Trump on Thursday put the force of the American military behind the White House’s moral condemnation of the attack, bombing the Syrian base from which it was believed to be launched. He repeatedly referenced the “beautiful babies” killed in the attack and called on other nations to help end the bloodshed.
The new rhetoric gave cautious hope to refugee advocacy groups that have grown increasingly frustrated since Trump won the presidency and sought to limit refugees’ ability to enter the United States. They struggled to interpret his sudden turnaround on attacking the regime, just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said whether President Bashar Assad remained in power was up to the Syrian people.
“We kind of have whiplash in the refugee policy and service world,” said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy for HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish refugee group that sued the Trump administration this year over an executive order barring refugees and people from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Nezer said various refugee advocacy groups had communicated with each other since Trump announced the strikes about what his new rhetoric meant. “We’re hopeful that maybe this awareness has changed his mind on a few things,” she said.
So far, Trump has shown no sign he’ll change directions. Asked Thursday night if Trump’s thinking on refugees had changed, national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters the issue didn’t factor into the deliberations about missile strikes.
The White House declined to comment on the refugee issue, but White House press secretary Sean Spicer cautioned Thursday against reading broader policy changes into the airstrikes decision.
“So far we haven’t seen any indication that the Trump administration is re-thinking its position on Syrian refugees,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). “We would expect once the administration has condemned violence against Syrian civilians it would recognize the need to protect those civilians.”
The images of children who were killed proved especially moving to Trump, Spicer told reporters Friday in Florida.
“From the get-go it was very, very disturbing and tragic and moving to him,” Spicer said.
Trump said as much at a Rose Garden press conference on Wednesday: “Yesterday’s chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies, their deaths were an affront to humanity.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has become an increasingly central figure in the administration, has held up pictures of children killed in the attack as she advocated for an international response.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Trump should recognize that Syrian families face violence every day.
“The president’s compassion must extend to the victims of the Syrian conflict seeking refuge and freedom in the United States,” Durbin said in a statement.
Still, Trump may find it tough politically to accept more Syrian refugees. His campaign-trail proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States morphed into the travel executive order, which advocacy groups fought in court. Federal judges have so far blocked the ban from taking effect.
Trump’s base, some of which opposed the strikes in Syria, could lash back if he softens his refugee stance. After all, Americans have seen evidence of extreme violence against Syrian civilians for years.
“People were suffering at the time that the president made some pretty awful statements about Syrian refugees in the past,” IRAP’s Fisher said. “That’s why we’re waiting to see what happens.”