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Team Trump Offers Mixed Messages on Syria

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
Image: USS Porter launches a tomahawk land attack missile
In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday, April 7, 2017 local time. The United States launched dozens of cruise missiles Thursday night at a Syrian airfield in response to what it believes was Syria's use of banned chemical weapons that killed at least 100 people, the U.S. military said.Ford Williams / U.S. Navy via AP

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

Mixed messages on Syria

President Trump’s decision last week to launch a targeted airstrike in Syria certainly got the attention of the world. But four days later, the same big question remains: What comes next? So far, we’ve gotten mixed messages from the White House about what the U.S.’s long-term goals in the region will ultimately be. Where exactly is the Trump administration on regime change in Syria? If Assad must go, what’s the role of the United States in creating that change? Can ISIS and Assad be addressed at the same time or not? Here’s what we’ve heard in the last 48 hours from administration officials:

  • U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Meet the Press: "In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government. And we have to make sure that we're pushing that process. The political solution has to come together for the good of the people of Syria.”
  • Haley on CNN: “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
  • Tillerson on CBS: “[W]e believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS, that, by defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat, not just the United States, but to the whole stability in the region. And once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria."
  • National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on FOX: “[W]hat Ambassador Haley pointed out is it's very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime. Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?”

And, of course, it’s also worth noting that — before last week’s strike — both Haley and Tillerson appeared to suggest that ousting Assad was not a top focus for the United States at all. The waters are muddy here, and it’s complicating the way forward for an administration that hoped to take advantage of a show of decisiveness last week. By the way, all these questions remain as Tillerson is set for talks in Moscow this week, where he’s indicated that he’ll take a hard line against Russia’s ties to Assad.

Graham’s “F you” and reaching the president on the airwaves

It’s not every day that you hear the phrase “f you” from a sitting United States senator during a broadcast T.V. appearance, but that’s what we heard from Sen. Lindsey Graham on Meet the Press Sunday. Here’s what he had to say about Syrian forces continuing to fly from the airfield targeted by the U.S. during last week’s strike:

CHUCK TODD: Do you think there's a moral difference between the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs?SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: No, there's a legal difference, not a moral difference. If you're a mother, your baby is dead. But we do have treaties that we've signed all over the world saying we're not going to let one nation use weapons of mass destruction. That's what the chemical weapons treaty is all about. But I will say this. If you kill babies with conventional bombs, it's still a moral outrage. Here's what I think Assad's telling Trump by flying from this base: "F you." And I think he's making a serious mistake. Because if you're an adversary of the United States and you don't worry about what Trump may do on any given day — then you're crazy.

Graham's not someone who uses language casually when it comes to national security, and his wording certainly seemed intentional here. And it’s the kind of thing sure to get the attention of a president who’s famously attuned to TV commentary (and who’s also certainly aware of the buzz that can be earned for throwing some salty language around.) Which leads us to wonder: If you’re trying to get the attention of Donald Trump — especially amid the staff upheaval and palace intrigue we’ve been seeing in the West Wing — is a bit of Trump-like rhetorical bomb-throwing on T.V. now the most effective way to break through to him?

Trying to mend fences at the White House?

Speaking of trying to break through to the president, the new week brings a new attempt from the White House to turn the page on the internecine drama roiling the West Wing. NBC’s White House team reports that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus held an intervention-style meeting between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner Friday afternoon in an attempt to smooth over the very public splits between the two factions. Administrations deal with infighting and rivalry all the time, but it seems that the issues at play here are far deeper than typical policy disagreements or power plays. The two sides have deep philosophical differences on nearly every single possible issue, from America’s role on the global stage to the role of the federal government in American life. Stories about efforts to smooth things over at least show that the White House is worried about improving the optics here, but it’s hard to see the tales of palace intrigue abating anytime soon.

Keeping an eye on health care politics

Foreign affairs have dominated the last few news cycles, but don’t forget that health care is still hanging in the air. With lawmakers home for recess, watch for more rounds of debate over the GOP’s failed attempt last month to roll back Obamacare. For example: progressive group Save My Care is up with ads targeting seven vulnerable Republicans who backed the GOP plan. The targets: Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado; Carlos Curbelo of Florida; Darrell Issa of California; Tom MacArthur of New Jersey; Brian Mast of Florida; Martha McSally of Arizona, and David Valadao of California.

Alabama Stakes

Don’t miss the drama unfolding in Alabama, where impeachment hearings are beginning today for Gov. Robert Bentley. From “A legislative committee starts hearings this morning to consider impeachment of Gov. Robert Bentley, a historic process that could remove the governor from office over allegations that he abused his power to try to hide from the public an affair with top advisor Rebekah Mason. The governor has denied misusing state resources. Bentley's lawyers tried to block today's hearings and the release of a scathing investigation report issued Friday by Jack Sharman, special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee… Sharman's report, based on witness interviews and documents, says Bentley used law enforcement and intimidation to try to block the release of recordings of provocative phone calls that revealed the nature of his relationship with Mason.” By the way, if Bentley is impeached, it would be the first time the Alabama legislature has impeached a governor or any other elected official.

Trump’s Day

The president attends the swearing-in ceremony of new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch at 11 a.m. ET and meets with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney at 4 p.m.

What were other presidents doing on April 10?

  • Barack Obama meets with senior economic advisors and marks progress on his recovery plans
  • Russia, China and North Korea criticize George W. Bush’s proposal to build a missile defense shield
  • Bill Clinton eulogizes his father-in-law Hugh Rodham, who died at the age of 82
  • George H.W. Bush chief of staff John Sununu warns White House aides against publicly criticizing former president Ronald Reagan
  • The Reagan administration says it’s not ready to compromise with Democrats over the president’s tax cut plan
  • Jimmy Carter says the U.S. “had to draw the line somewhere” after the Coast Guard seizes a Russian fishing boat for violating rules