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Four Big Questions After Trump's Syria Strike

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: President Donald Trump meets with President Al Sisi of Egypt
President Donald Trump is flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi (not pictured) of Egypt sits on the other side of the table in the Cabinet Room of White House on April 3.Olivier Douliery / Pool via EPA

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Four Big Questions after Trump’s Syria Strike

On Day 77 of his presidency, Donald Trump responded to his first major international test — a chemical attack in Syria that killed scores of civilians — by carrying out a targeted missile strike against a Syrian airfield. The move is a dramatic departure from Trump’s campaign promises to avoid intervention in the region (much more on that below), and the immediate aftermath of Trump’s decision has left us with some very big questions about what the strike means and how the president will try to sell it.

1. What’s Trump’s ultimate goal in Syria? In his remarks last night, Trump said it is in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” And he urged the international community to work “to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” But was Trump’s military action about beginning the removal of Bashar al-Assad — something Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded to yesterday before the strike? Was it mainly a strategic move to begin dismantling Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons? The Trump team has taken pains to emphasize that the move was a “proportionate” response to the chemical attack, but what comes next? And if the goal is ending the bloodshed in Syria, how will Trump finish the job?

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2. What’s Trump’s message to the world? Beyond the strategic value of last night’s missile strike, Trump’s decision certainly sends a message about how he’ll handle international affairs — but what is it, exactly? Is his message mainly directed at Russia (which last night called the U.S. action “an aggression against a sovereign country”)? Is it intended to show our allies that the United States will step up its game if they do more as well? Is it aimed broadly at all U.S. enemies to highlight how Trump’s style differs from his predecessor's? Keep in mind: This was all playing out as Trump was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping. How much was this a message to China about Trump’s willingness to act unilaterally on North Korea, too?

3. How will Trump sell the strike to his base? It wasn’t that long ago that Trump’s fans were nodding along with his warnings that military action in Syria could prompt “World War III.” A significant chunk of his base of Twitter defenders is seeming a lot less enthusiastic about Trump’s move this morning.

  • Laura Ingraham tweeted: “Missiles flying. Rubio's happy. McCain ecstatic. Hillary's on board. A complete policy change in 48 hrs.”
  • Ann Coulter: “Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates… Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast. Said it always helps our enemies & creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV.”
  • InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson tweeted: “Guys, I can't vehemently oppose destabilizing the Syrian government for 6 years and then support it just because Trump did it. Sorry."
  • Mike Cernovich used the hashtag “#SyriaHoax” and tweeted “Trump's base of support is gone if he goes to war with Syria, the same people who betrayed before election will betray him again.”

PHOTOS: Rescuers Treat Dozens in Syria Chemical Attack

4. How does Trump sell the strike to the public at large? Setting aside the pro-Trump Twitter crowd, the president has a bigger issue on his hands, too: The American public has never had much of an appetite for this conflict. Back in 2013, when Obama was mulling a Syria strike after an even more devastating chemical attack, just 24 percent said military action in Syria was in America’s national interest, while 47 percent said it was not, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll at the time. And don’t underestimate the impact of Trump’s unpopularity as well. Obama’s Syria moment came at a pretty low point for his approval rating (45 percent approve/ 50 percent disapprove), and Trump is even more underwater than that now.

The Syria reversal

It’s worth repeating how dramatically Trump and his administration have changed their tune on Syria. And, because Trump was hardly shy about criticizing the Obama administration the last time it faced a Syria crossroads, the paper (Twitter) trail is very long. Here’s a quick review of some of Trump’s past statements on Syria — all of which make his current thinking harder to decipher.

  • “What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria. You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton… You're not fighting Syria anymore, you're fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.” – Interview with Reuters, October 26, 2016
  • [Hillary Clinton] wants to start a shooting war in Syria, in conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia that could very well lead to World War III” – speech in Jacksonville, November 3, 2016
  • “Look, we have Iran and we have Russia totally on the side of Assad. And that's not the reason I stay out necessarily, but certainly it's a complicating factor. But we have them totally on the side of Assad. We have to knock the hell out of ISIS. And if we're going after Assad and ISIS and they're fighting each other, people are going to say what the hell are we doing.” – Morning Joe, October 2, 2015
  • “So Assad is not a good guy, but the people that we're backing, a lot of people think they're ISIS, that we're actually backing ISIS. So what are we doing? We have to get rid of ISIS first; Assad, we think about later on.” – Meet the Press, December 20, 2015
  • “If the U.S. attacks Syria and hits the wrong targets, killing civilians, there will be worldwide hell to pay. Stay away and fix broken U.S.” – Tweet, September 2, 2013
  • “Syria has prepared for an attack based on all of our "talk" - they have moved targeted ammunition and supplies to new locations. Amazing!” – Tweet, August 31, 2013
  • “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” – Tweet, August 30, 2013

So, besides just ridiculing the idea of intervention, Trump 1) warned of drawing Russia and Iran into the conflict 2) said ISIS and Assad could not be targeted at the same time; 3) worried about civilian casualties; 4) wanted the element of “surprise” and 5) thought an AUMF was necessary before Obama could take action.

Another thought experiment

So far, there has been largely positive reaction to the strike from hawkish Republicans in the Senate like Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. But those are also folks who are hoping that this move is the start of a bigger push in the region. In their statement last night, Graham and McCain said: “Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress. That means following through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria.” So here’s our question: How do they respond to Trump’s next move? And if Barack Obama had followed through in 2013 but only conducted a targeted strike like what we saw from Trump last night, how would the GOP hawks have reacted then?

Why the palace intrigue matters

Another day, another spate of stories about divisions in the White House. Consider:

  • The New York Times: “Thick with tension, the conversation this week between Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had deteriorated to the point of breakdown. Finally, Mr. Bannon identified why they could not compromise, according to someone with knowledge of the conversation. ‘Here’s the reason there’s no middle ground,’ Mr. Bannon growled. ‘You’re a Democrat.’”
  • Axios: “President Trump is considering a broad shakeup of his White House that could include the replacement of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the departure of chief strategist Steve Bannon, aides and advisers tell us.”
  • Daily Beast: “Donald Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon has called the president’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner a “cuck” and a “globalist” during a time of high tension between the two top aides, several Trump administration officials told The Daily Beast. The fighting between Kushner and Bannon has been “nonstop” in recent weeks, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. It’s been an “open secret” that Bannon and Kushner often clash “face-to-face,” according to senior officials.”

Here’s the thing: Even folks who want to be on the president’s side aren’t sure how to effectively communicate with Trump’s team. When a Trump ally wants to talk policy or strategy, whose ear is best? Do they want to risk getting in the Bannon-Kushner crosshairs? Fostering a power struggle in his inner circle might be Trump’s style, but it makes him less effective when there isn’t a designated gatekeeper managing his time and information flow. Another thing exacerbating this problem, by the way: The fear among Trump’s top staffers that being out of the president’s physical presence for too long will cut them out of the loop.

Nuclear fallout

As we wrote yesterday, the Senate’s move Thursday to eliminate the 60-vote threshold to advance nominees to the Supreme Court was a big deal — but it was also almost certainly inevitable no matter who was elected president in 2016. After all, for as much as pundits and lawmakers opine about comity and moderation, there’s very little in our political system that offers tangible rewards for compromise or bipartisanship. That led to the nuclear option, which in turn will accelerate partisanship too, with presidents even less incentivized to pick consensus nominees and senators less incentivized to even feign consideration of nominees picked by the opposite party. It’s an ugly feedback loop.

Keeping an eye on… KS-04?

Worth noting this dispatch from the Wichita Eagle: “With less than a week to go until election day, the national Republican Party has stepped into Kansas’ 4th District race, spending $92,000 supporting Republican Ron Estes and opposing his Democratic rival James Thompson, federal forms show. The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday purchased $67,111 worth of television advertising from KSN, KWCH, KAKE and KSAS stations in the Wichita TV market, according to a disclosure form filed by KSNW-TV.” It’s a race that should be a slam-dunk for Estes — and probably still will be. But in a low-turnout special election with an energized Democratic base, it could get interesting.

What were other presidents doing on April 7?

  • Barack Obama visits Baghdad to thank troops and meet with Iraqi leaders
  • George W. Bush faces a setback as lawmakers seek to trim his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan
  • The Clinton administration concedes that its timetable for health care reform will slip but still pledges to get it done within the year
  • George H.W. Bush declines to answer questions about the Iran-Contra scandal as Oliver North concedes he lied to Congress about the matter
  • A second man is charged after making threats to assassinate Ronald Reagan
  • Jimmy Carter meets with members of Congress amid complaints that he’s ignoring urban needs