With 59 Tomahawk missiles, Trump has rejiggered the domestic political dynamics that governed his first months in office
While the GOP establishment mostly lined up behind Trump, some of the President's most loyal -- and vocal -- supporters have been critical
The missile strike launched by President Donald Trump on an Assad regime airfield last week did little to change the deadly status quo in Syria, where government aircraft were again bombarding rebel-held Idlib province a day later.
In the US, the next steps remain a relative mystery. Trump administration officials appear at cross purposes over the basic strategic – or was it tactical? – purpose of the intervention as analysts try to predict this wild card White House’s next steps.
But even with little changed at present and less known about the future, Trump has, with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, authored an abrupt rejiggering of the domestic political dynamics that governed his first months in office.
Republican critics and some US allies welcomed the attack with hopeful praise, while Trump’s right-wing populist base – like the broader movement abroad – blanched at his sudden internationalist turn.
Here is a quick breakdown of how assorted political factions – and the key players therein – have responded, and in many cases shifted, following last week’s intervention.
Republican hawks are crowing
GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been relentless critics of Trump’s stated desire to soften relations with Russia. As such, the senators, who hail from Arizona and South Carolina, respectively, have been among the few high-profile Republicans to openly promote investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Moscow and operatives adjacent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When informed of the strikes on Assad, an ally of Russia, they were predictably sanguine. During an interview Friday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, McCain shared his newfound optimism.
“As president of the United States you have to look at these issues in a more somber and sober way,” he said, seeking to make sense of Trump’s reversal, “and I think that’s what he’s doing. And he’s surrounded by (national security advisers) who give him the best advice.”
In a joint statement, McCain and Graham wove a jab at former President Barack Obama into their praise.
“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” they said. “For that, he deserves the support of the American people.”
Another Republican foreign policy hawk, Sen. Marco Rubio, was similarly enthused. In January, Rubio put Secretary of State Rex Tillerson under the gun, pointedly asking the former ExxonMobil CEO during his confirmation hearing if he would call Putin “a war criminal.” When Tillerson said he “would not,” the Florida senator cited Assad’s siege of Aleppo as evidence to the contrary.
If those questions were a warning to the administration, Rubio’s statement after the missile attack represented a firm pat on the back.
“By acting decisively against the very facility from which Assad launched his murderous chemical weapons attack, President Trump has made it clear to Assad and those who empower him that the days of committing war crimes with impunity are over,” he said.
Right wing populists and the alt-right are turning
While the GOP establishment mostly lined up behind Trump, some of the President’s most loyal – and vocal – supporters have been critical.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, once rumored to be on the short list for a place in the administration, tweeted her contempt.
“Missiles flying. Rubio’s happy. McCain ecstatic. Hillary’s on board. A complete policy change in 48 hrs,” she wrote.
Further toward the fringe, InfoWars contributor and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson was less mad than, well, disappointed.
“I guess Trump wasn’t ‘Putin’s puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet,” Watson tweeted. “I’m officially OFF the Trump train.” (Note: His writings since have lent Trump his hedged support)
Mike Cernovich, a social media personality associated with the alt-right and one of Trump’s most dependable backers, suggested the White House had betrayed its base.
“Today over 500,000 people have watched my videos and streams,” he tweeted his nearly 250,000 followers. “90% are @realDonaldTrump supporters, none want war with Syria. #NoMoreWars”
Democrats are mostly paralyzed
Back in Washington, Democrats who had bought in to the anti-Trump resistance movement animating their base thought – or hoped – the end of the week would be dominated by their efforts to filibuster Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. But Senate Republicans went “nuclear,” Gorsuch was confirmed with a simple majority, and the whole episode was washed out by the Syrian situation.
Most Senate Democrats responded to the strikes with cautious praise. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement was representative of his tepid colleagues, including the typically more critical Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do,” the New York senator said, adding, “It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come with a strategy and consult with congress before implementing it.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was also surprisingly mild in his response.
“Syria’s Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the men, women and children of his country makes him a war criminal,” he said beginning of string of tweets that warned of a “disastrous” impasse, but allowed Trump the space, in the form of an invitation, to “explain what this military escalation is intended to achieve and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution.”
Ironically, his former Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton said about the same. She rapped Trump during remarks Friday, essentially calling him a hypocrite for bombing Syria while seeking to close American doors to its refugees. But she is not opposed to military action, telling the audience at the “Women in the World” summit in New York City on Thursday, not long before Trump launched the attack, “I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”
Among the few prominent Democrats to reject Trump’s action outright, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy also defended the Obama administration.
“Dropping bombs inside a civil war was a bad idea in 2013, it’s a worse idea in 2017,” he said. “It will make some Americans feel better, but it will make that battle space more chaotic and end up with more people getting killed, not less.”
The leftist anti-war machine is mobilizing – with some kinks
Further left, where opposition to US military action is a near given, the response has been about what one would expect. The progressive activist group MoveOn.org immediately condemned Trump, calling the intervention “illegal and unauthorized.”
“Let’s be clear: There’s no doubt that Bashar Assad is a brutal dictator who has slaughtered his own people and is complicit in the use of chemical weapons,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action. “But this is no humanitarian mission. These are missiles ordered by a flailing president with plummeting approval ratings, trying to show how ‘tough’ he can be.”
The anti-war group ANSWER, whose name stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, put a call out for protests on the night of the attack. They also pointed a finger at Clinton’s remarks, telling supporters, “It is noteworthy that in the hours before Trump ordered military strikes on Syria, Hillary Clinton emerged back into the public spotlight to demand that Trump carry out military strikes against Syria.”
Left-wing writers Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton asked for more evidence that Assad had been responsible for the chemical attacks, questioning why the Syrian dictator, who wields the upper hand in his country’s long war, would do anything that might provoke an American response. Their suggestion that Western powers were either overeager for, or working intentionally to create, new conflict in the region, was shared by at least one federal official.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who held a controversial meeting with Assad during a visit to Syria months ago, said she is “skeptical” of the US government assessment, pointing to past intelligence failures in Iraq.
“Congress and the American people need to see and analyze this evidence and then make a decision (about what action to take) based on that,” Gabbard said.
Libertarians are (even more) upset
Libertarian holdouts, typically at the forefront of any Republican ideological backlash against Trumpism, were also openly hostile.
Their gripe centered as much on Trump’s approach as the wisdom behind the strikes. Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee were both adamant that the President needed congressional approval and had overreached by acting without it.
“President Trump should make his case in front of the American people and allow their elected representatives to debate the benefits and risks of further Middle East intervention to our national security interests,” Lee, of Utah, said in a statement, adding that he would be willing to forgo the current recess to “in order to properly consider any further military action.”
Paul, in an interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish, made the argument against.
“We have to decide when we are going to intervene as a country, when we are going to put our young men and women, put their lives on the line,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And we don’t, frankly, do it for every atrocity in the world.”
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have great sympathy, but we have to debate when and where we go to war,” he said. “That’s what our founding fathers asked us to do.”