President Donald Trump’s blunt, public warning to the Syrian regime issued late Monday night was cobbled together in a series of hurried discussions, squeezed in between meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and kept among a small, tight circle of top officials.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both arrived at the White House late Monday afternoon, ahead of the Rose Garden ceremony where Trump and Modi both read prepared statements. Upon their arrival, according to a senior defense official, they were informed of Trump’s plan to issue a public warning to Syrian president Bashar Assad, based on new intelligence that the Syrian administration was making preparations for another chemical weapons attack on its own people.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who also was at the White House for meetings, had already been briefed and weighed in on the plan, administration sources said.
But no stand-alone principals meeting followed to discuss the intelligence, which Trump received Monday morning, according to two senior administration officials.
Rather, over the course of the day, officials said, McMaster, Mattis, Tillerson and a few other top officials had the opportunity to “work the language” of the statement, in between Modi meetings. None of them expressed any hesitation or disagreement about the decision to issue a public warning, according to one of the senior administration officials.
But a Defense Department official acknowledged that the events were “fast moving” and that there were minimal deliberations about the bold move — and that only a limited number of top military officials were aware of the new intelligence and planned response.
The episode marked another example of ongoing frustration between administration rank-and-file and leadership, which this time could carry serious consequences if the backbiting appears to weaken the U.S. government’s resolve in turning up the pressure on Assad.
“It hurts American credibility,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official who served under Secretary of State John Kerry. “When the Syrian regime sees a report that [government officials] have no idea, the message to them is that these guys don’t have their act together. And if nobody at State knows, it hurts your ability to follow up and have a diplomatic game-plan.”
But one former Obama administration official shrugged off the issues of communication between the White House and lower-level agency officials.
"There’s a broader issue here of effective coordination and communication — sometimes the president contradicts his own people," Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, said in an interview. "But I don’t think that’s the most important issue here. If, in fact, the United States has evidence that they’re preparing a chemical attack, laying down a warning that you intend to follow through on is an appropriate thing to do."
The careful language of the 87-word statement — which was drafted by the afternoon but was not released until close to 10 p.m. — was cleared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Defense Department before it was blasted out from the press secretary’s office.
On Tuesday, the White House insisted military officials and State Department officials were not blindsided by the statement, which warned Assad that if he launched another chemical weapons attack, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
“In response to several inquiries regarding the Syria statement issued last night, we want to clarify that all relevant agencies — including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI — were involved in the process from the beginning,” the White House said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false.”
Multiple administration officials said people surprised by the statement were simply not senior enough to be clued in — and some said they were frustrated that a bold move by Trump, which they believed could save lives, was overshadowed by a side story about leaks and internal disagreements.
“The story seems to be about whether or not a public affairs officer on a regional desk at the State Department was notified in what they would consider to be a timely manner,” vented a third White House official. “If Tillerson knew and some desk officer in the Middle East section didn’t know, they need to take that up with Tillerson. It’s not their right to know. It’s his prerogative if he wants to share the information.”
The move, and the frustration, was reflective of the Trump administration’s approach of making key decisions within a close, inner circle — unlike the deliberative, and sometimes paralyzingly inclusive, decision making that defined Obama’s process.
Despite the confusion and complaints over who was looped in and when, foreign policy experts lauded Trump’s choice to make a public statement rather than trying to pressure the Syrian regime through diplomatic back channels.
“[The Trump administration] realizes they’re being dragged into a very dangerous situation,” said Jim Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, and the former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush. He said the U.S. approach to Assad so far had been “a bunch of tit for tats” that seemed to have no long-term impact.
“The benefit of a public statement is they’re now on record as saying, this shall not happen,” Jeffrey added. “There was a conscious decision made by the people who realize whatever we want to do in the Middle East, we’re going to look like fools if they do this again and we blow up a few more airplanes. We have to react very strongly to them.”
Trump’s own seeming disinterest in the issue, though, could also diminish the message to Assad.
Instead of using the megaphone of his Twitter feed to amplify the White House statement, marked by his press office as “urgent,” Trump took to Twitter minutes after its release to harp on one of his personal obsessions. “From @FoxNews “Bombshell: In 2016, Obama dismissed idea that anyone could rig an American election." Check out his statement – Witch Hunt!” the president tweeted.
“He’s very undisciplined,” said Jeffrey. “He does this all the time. That’s a separate problem. But what’s clear is that in the end, he goes along with what his top advisers tell him.”
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.