The White House press secretary is not supposed to make policy from the lectern, but Spicer seems to have inadvertently done so on Monday. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said. That statement sounded close to Tillerson’s maximalism, but it stood at odds with Trump’s views before he became president. The White House has argued, in essence, that Trump was right to counsel caution years ago, but also right to act now because of the horrific Idlib attack. But Spicer’s phrasing makes clear that this is a distinction without a difference, since Assad was gassing children and barrel-bombing innocent people years ago.
Later Monday, the White House reversed Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” a statement said, according to The New York Times. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
Trump’s national security adviser tried to split the difference between Haley and Tillerson during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, arguing that on the one hand only a political solution can end the Syrian civil war but that on the other, no political solution can involve Assad. “I think that while people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria,” he said.
McMaster was careful not to commit himself or the administration to any future course of action, saying that while the goal of attacks was to deter chemical-weapons use, future decisions will be made in the future. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people, and it will be our job to provide him with options based on how we see this conflict evolve in this period of time before us, after the strike,” McMaster said.
During remarks Thursday night, McMaster told reporters, “The president was immediately notified upon news of the chemical attack.” Trump himself told a different story on Wednesday. The Times’ Maggie Haberman asked him, “Where were you when you found out about it?” He replied, “I was here. I saw it on television.” Given his viewing habits, that probably means Fox News. CNN’s Jim Acosta also reported that Trump was deeply affected by the images he saw in press reports.
The secretary of defense has kept a comparatively low profile during the latest flap. He has previously said that without Iranian patronage, Assad would have been forced out of office long ago. Mattis briefed Trump on military options ahead of U.S. strikes. On Tuesday, Mattis said, “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.” That followed a statement Monday, the Pentagon chief and former Marine general stayed clear of indications about regime change, portraying American strikes a deterrent to further gassing. “The president directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons,” Mattis said. “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”
Mattis’s vague threat is a fitting encapsulation of the Trump administration’s stance on Syria at the moment. The president has shown a willingness to deploy the military, but he has not made clear when he will or won’t do it, and he has not laid out clearly what his goals are. In the absence of leadership from the top, a range of advisers are offering their own ideas.