Donald Trump wanted to be the trade president, the jobs president, the “America First” president. Now, less than three months into the White House, he is a president wading into a civil war in Syria with no clean resolution and no clear pro-America parties on any side of the years-long conflict.
Trump faced his first crossroads as commander in chief this week — whether to stand by as Syrian President Bashar Assad gassed his own people to death or intervene militarily in a humanitarian tragedy in exactly the way he argued against before he was president. And unlike in his career as a businessman developer, walking away from two bad choices was not an option.
He chose to intercede, ordering Thursday’s strike on a Syrian airbase that American officials say was used by the Assad regime to launch sarin gas attacks against civilians. In response, Russia announced on Friday that it would boost Syria’s air defenses in response to the American airstrike, a move that will cloud Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first official visit to Moscow, planned for next week.
The move risked the wrath of Trump’s nationalist base, which is opposed to foreign military entanglements. It also threatens to open an international crisis for an administration that has struggled to advance domestic priorities amid constant infighting among top lieutenants and fellow Republicans in Congress.
One person close to the White House questioned the timing of Trump’s action, which came in the middle of his much-anticipated two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, billed as an opportunity to focus on America’s trade deficit, an issue Trump has spoken passionately about for decades.
“You have the second-biggest economic world leader sitting in your home and you’re going to overshadow him?” the person close to the White House said of the timing. “It’s amateur hour.”
Dennis Wilder, who served from 2015 to 2016 as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific, echoed that sentiment: “Missiles fly while Xi is feted. It makes Trump look strong but embarrasses Xi.”
The White House tried to paint Trump’s Syria strike as rising to a presidential moment. On Friday morning, the administration released a photograph of Trump, in his red power tie, being briefed on the airstrikes at Mar-a-Lago surrounded by advisers. It was reminiscent of the famous 2011 photo of President Obama in the Situation Room watching the raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed.
But if that image was meant to project competence and confidence, it came after days of vacillation over how the administration would handle Assad, whose grip on power White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said only last week was “a political reality that we have to accept.”
Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Trump said, “He’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.” Hours later, dozens of American Tomahawk missiles rained down on the Assad-controlled Syrian air base, near Homs.
Trump notably invoked “God” three times in his three-minute address about the bombings he ordered. It was a marked shift for a politician who in 2015 and 2016 mostly eschewed religious terminology except when he was wooing evangelical voters.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said of the gas attacks, asking later “for God’s wisdom” in his response. But it was Trump’s final reference to God that was most telling. “God bless America and the entire world,” he said, offering a universal twist on the phrase American presidents have used for decades to close national speeches.
Some in the White House pitched the Syria strike as a limited move and not one that suggested that Trump is lurching in a more interventionist direction, advocated by hawks like Republican Sen. John McCain. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria,” Tillerson said.
Still, the administration embraced the language of internationalism and America as the world’s most important actor, if not chief enforcer. “It’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms,” Tillerson added.
That is a far cry from the economic nationalism that has been advocated by Bannon, who has been engaged with a series of power struggles from the start of the administration, first with chief of staff Reince Priebus and more recently with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Kushner’s allies, including advisers Gary Cohn and Dina Powell.
Trump’s core supporters strained to reconcile the militarized images of bombs landed thousands of miles away overnight with the “America First” rhetoric they embraced.
“I’m officially OFF the Trump train,” tweeted Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at the reliably pro-Trump site InfoWars. “Missiles flying. [Marco] Rubio’s happy. [John] McCain ecstatic. Hillary’s on board. A complete policy change in 48 hrs,” tweeted Laura Ingraham, the talk radio host and a prominent Trump backer who spoke at the Republican National Convention.
Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump blogger who has trafficked in fake new but whom the White House has also boosted in recent weeks, pushed the hashtag #NoMoreWars. “Push back,” he wrote, “it’s what honest people do.”
Trump’s decision to intervene marks a clear break from his pre-presidential rhetoric.
In 2013, Trump had urged President Obama “do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside” in one tweet. In another all-caps missive, Trump wrote, “FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.”
By October 2016, Trump mostly complained about how “our country is so outplayed by Putin and Assad,” as he put it in one debate. On the campaign trail, Trump suggested working in concert with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, the most powerful force in Syria besides Assad. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS,” Trump said at another debate against Clinton.
Democrats have hammered Trump for hypocrisy after he lamented how “beautiful babies were cruelly murdered,” as Trump said Thursday night, while he has demonized Syrian refugees and pushed to block Syrian children from coming to America as refugees with his executive orders.
Yet, with Russia discussing strengthening Assad’s defenses, it is not clear how an impulsive and emotional president who takes poorly to any perceived slight will respond. He already cast the decision to strike Syria as driven, in part, by the emotion of seeing children writhing to death from sarin.
“A big impact on me — big impact,” Trump said at the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday. “That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
Josh Meyer contributed reporting.