Can Americans Believe the President About Syrian Chemical Weapons?

Defense officials initially were in the dark about the White House’s claim the Assad regime was planning another attack.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The White House said Monday night that Syria’s Assad regime was potentially preparing for a chemical-weapons attack that “would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”

“If … Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons,” the statement from the White House press secretary said, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

The New York Times, which called the statement “highly unusual,” noted: “Several military officials were caught off guard by the statement from President Trump’s press secretary, but it was unclear how closely held the intelligence regarding a potential chemical attack was.” By Tuesday, the Defense Department appeared to have gotten on the same page as the president. Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. has seen “actions suggestive of intent to use chemical weapons” at the al-Shayrat airbase for several days. That’s the same airbase the Trump administration said was used by the Assad regime to launch a chemical-weapons attack in April against civilians in Idlib Province. In that incident, President Trump responded almost immediately, launching more than 50 cruise missiles at the base near the city of Homs.

Monday’s White House statement said the activities “are similar to preparations the regime made before” the April attack. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., tweeted:

The White House insisted Tuesday “all relevant agencies—including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI—were involved in the process” leading up to the statement “from the beginning.” But as BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday, the manner in which the White House released its statement—the Pentagon’s clarification notwithstanding—only raises more questions about what the White House was referring to. Here’s more:

[F]ive US defense officials reached by BuzzFeed News Monday night said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, including one US Central Command official who had ‘no idea’ about its origin. The officials said they were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement; usually such statements are coordinated across the national security agencies and departments before they are released.

In Damascus, Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, rejected the White House’s claim. He told the Associated Press the statement suggested a “diplomatic battle” at the U.N. against Syria. Russia, which backs the Assad regime, also rejected the allegation. “I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons could be used,” Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said. Assad’s record on this issue is clearly damning, however: During the more than six-year civil war in his country, he has used chemical weapons multiple times despite an agreement involving the U.S. and Russia that aimed to remove his ability to do so; and he has found other ways to kill hundreds of thousands of his people. Syria and Russia have repeatedly rejected overwhelming evidence that Assad’s forces carried out the chemical-weapons attack in April, instead blaming rebels for the deaths. So it’s hardly unexpected that they would both reject any evidence the White House presents for its latest claim—even if it is accurate.

But the saga of the statement so far highlights the White House’s own credibility problems—and why Russia and Syria are in a position to exploit them.

It’s plausible, as the Times suggests, that the White House made its announcement based on intelligence that was not widely shared within the administration. Neither the Times nor Buzzfeed identified which specific officials had been surprised by the Monday night statement; maybe those officials weren’t in a position to know about it ahead of time anyway. On the other hand, it’s no less plausible that this White House would make a pronouncement without consulting the relevant national-security agencies— despite the administration’s claims to the contrary—and that the president has once again left his own government scrambling to catch up and coordinate. We’ve seen this happen on several significant occasions since Trump’s inauguration: He repeatedly described NATO as “obsolete” and appeared to make U.S. support for its partners in the alliance conditional upon their military expenditures, only to have James Mattis, his defense secretary, undertake a European tour in an attempt to reassure allies of America’s commitment. He publicly alluded to military action against North Korea, in apparent contradiction of the public statements of his own secretary of state.

There has been even more confusion over Qatar, a U.S. ally with which Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations severed links this month over its alleged support of terrorism. Trump lauded that stand. The U.S. State Department took a dramatically different approach, with the department spokeswoman declaring herself “mystified” about what the Gulf countries expected to achieve. Similar contradictions have surfaced with regard to Russia, which Trump wants closer relations with but which Mattis has said “we are going to have to confront;” and Syria, where the Trump administration’s stated policy preferences have ranged from political solutions to regime change.

What do all these contradictions amount to? They could signal mere inexperience; they could show internal policy debates being played out in public. But the more troubling possibility lies in what my colleague James Fallows has called Trump’s “credibility crisis.” The president’s willingness to disregard and distort facts, Fallows wrote, invites the question: “If an administration will lie about facts where the contradictory evidence is in plain sight, how can we possibly believe them on anything else?”

When the president releases a late-night threat of military action, which his own Defense Department won’t comment on publicly until the following morning, that question becomes all the more urgent.