Trump is relying on the judgment of Mattis, according to the source
McCain and Graham call for action
Before launching a military strike on a Syrian government target, President Donald Trump said Thursday that “something should happen” with regard to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the wake of this week’s chemical attack, which US officials say he perpetrated.
“I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”
Trump was expected to meet with his national security team later Thursday in Mar-a-Lago, according to a White House official.
The US military had warships and aircraft in the area ready to go.
Two US Navy warships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles – the USS Ross and the USS Porter – are stationed in the Mediterranean.
US warships launched between 50-60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government airbase where the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks were based, US officials said.
The White House official confirmed that in addition to Defense Secretary James Mattis, three other Cabinet secretaries are currently in Mar-a-Lago, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Trump’s comments came shortly after CNN learned that the President is considering military action in Syria in retaliation for the chemical attack. The US has led a coalition bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Syria and has special operations forces posted there, but has resisted any direct military action against the Assad regime.
While Trump declined to say directly whether he believes Assad should be deposed, Tillerson said Thursday afternoon that Assad’s fate is “uncertain” and that the US is taking steps to bolster an international effort to remove Assad.
Tillerson’s tough words also extended to Russia, Syria’s primary benefactor, whom he warned to “consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime.”
Both Trump and Tillerson’s comments made clear the President’s thinking on the US role in Syria has changed in the wake of the chemical attack, whose victims were seen writhing in agony in videos broadcast around the world.
Trump, who has argued in favor of targeting ISIS while largely ignoring Assad, told some members of Congress in the wake of the chemical attack that he is now considering military action there and recognizes the seriousness of the situation, a source familiar with the calls told CNN.
The source said the President had not firmly decided to go ahead with it but said he was discussing possible actions with Mattis.
“I don’t want to mention that,” Trump said when asked if he told members of Congress he plans to take military action. “But the answer is no, I haven’t.”
US officials told CNN the Pentagon has long-standing options to strike Syria’s chemical weapons capability and has presented those options to the administration.
The sources stressed a decision has not been made.
McCain and Graham weigh in
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told reporters Thursday that it’s his “understanding” that Trump is consulting with Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Syria. He does not know what they will recommend to him, but believes they will provide him with an “excellent” option.
McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement earlier in the day calling for military action, recommending an international coalition “to ground Assad’s air force.”
“We agree with the President that Assad hasl crossed a line with his latest use of chemical weapons. The message from the United States must be that this will not stand. We must show that no foreign power can or will protect Assad now. He must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack,” they said.
They added: “In addition to other measures, the United States should lead an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force. This capability provides Assad a strategic advantage in his brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, both through the use of chemical weapons as well as barrel bombs, which kill far more men, women and children on a daily basis … Ultimately, the grounding of Assad’s air force can and should be part of a new comprehensive strategy to end the conflict in Syria.”
By Thursday evening, Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican member of the foreign relations and intelligence committees, said in an interview on Fox News that the administration was “considering” military options, and believed they would likely take place.
“The ones that are going to be wringing their hands over this are the people in Moscow right now, because they’re going to have to make some serious choices as to how much capital they’re going to spend on this,” Risch said.
Trump on Wednesday called the chemical attack that killed more than 70 people in Syria as a “heinous” act that had changed his views on Assad.
“Yesterday’s chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies, their deaths were an affront to humanity,” Trump said, speaking in the Rose Garden alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah.
“These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack and all other horrific attacks, for that matter.”
Earlier this week, the Trump administration had offered a pessimistic view on Assad’s fate in Syria, citing political realities there as a reason the brutal dictator isn’t likely to leave anytime soon.
“There is not a fundamental option of regime change, as there has been in the past,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.