The evening of Friday, April 13th, 2018, was John Bolton’s debut crisis as President Trump’s national-security adviser. Barely three days on the job and there he was, standing off-camera in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, while his new boss delivered an address to the nation to explain why U.S., British, and French aircraft and missiles were attacking targets associated with Syria’s chemical-weapons program.
Trump read from a teleprompter, standing in front of a portrait of George Washington, flanked at each shoulder by a small bronze statue of an American eagle with its wings raised and an arrangement of yellow and white roses. The symbolism was of an assertive White House in spring bloom. As his boss delivered what sounded like a carefully negotiated script, Bolton studied a copy of Trump’s remarks with gel pen poised as if to check whether he remained true to his text.
To be sure, there were a few classic Trumpisms in the president’s delivery: Assad as a “monster,” the American economy as the “greatest and most powerful … in the history of the world,” and Trump’s wistful ever-present hope that “someday we will get along with Russia.”
But the real message of the address was far more restrained than Trump or his national-security adviser reportedly desired. A chemical weapons R&D center and two storage facilities were destroyed to degrade—not eliminate—Assad’s capabilities and send a signal that the United States and its Western allies would not tolerate the use of these weapons of mass destruction. No other regime targets were struck, no Syrian aircraft destroyed, no Russian or Iranian bases threatened, and no Russian air-defense zone penetrated. It was, as Defense Secretary James Mattis described it afterward, “a one-time shot.” No doubt at another time, under another president, Trump and Bolton would have accurately described it as a “pin-prick attack.”