President Donald Trump on Sunday denounced the alleged “mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” but neither the President himself nor many members of Congress explicitly said that Trump would, nor should, respond as he did a year ago, with a military strike of his own.
Beginning on Saturday, according to the Associated Press, reports of a gas attack began streaming out of the rebel-held town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, outside of the country’s capital, Damascus. At least 40 people have died, according to AP. A joint statement from the Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society, according to the report, claimed that hundreds of people had shown signs of a chemical attack, including a chlorine-like smell.
Just more than a year ago, Trump ordered an missile strike on a Syrian air base — after the United States gave Russia advanced warning — following the Syrian regime’s alleged use of the nerve gas sarin in an attack on civilians. Trump has criticized President Barack Obama (though not at the time) for not responding militarily over similar alleged chemical weapon use by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in 2013, after Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” in 2012.
The White House homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz that he “wouldn’t take anything off the table” when asked if Trump could order another missile attack in response to the alleged chemical weapon use.
Not long after that comment, though, Raddatz asked about Trump’s recent line during a speech in Ohio that “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon” — a claim that his administration soon walked back.
“American troops aren’t going to fix the six or seven different ongoing conflicts and wars going on in the Middle East or in Syria at this stage,” Bossert said. “We need regional partnership increased and we need U.S. presence decreased.”
Several Senate Republicans voiced their support for a military strike in statements and Sunday show appearances. Some encouraged an American or international response without specifying what they meant.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Trump’s comments about withdrawing from Syria had “emboldened” Assad “and his Russian and Iranian backers.”
“President Trump was quick to call out Assad today, along with the Russian and Iranian governments, on Twitter,” McCain added. “The question now is whether he will do anything about it. The President responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons last year. He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”
“It’s a defining moment in his presidency, because he has challenged Assad in the past not to use chemical weapons,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a separate interview with Raddatz. “We had a one-and-done missile attack. So Assad is at it again.”
“They see us, our resolve, breaking,” he said. “They see our determination to stay in Syria waning. And it’s no accident they used chemical weapons.”
“To me, I would destroy Assad’s air force,” Graham suggested, one of several aggressive responses he laid out.
The senator added: “If it becomes a tweet without meaning, then he has hurt himself in North Korea. If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran. So this is a defining moment, Mr. President. You need to follow through with that tweet. Show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said that Trump was “a new sheriff in town” when he ordered the 2017 missile strike and added: “He’s got to send a message once again that what he said, he meant.”
“It was appropriate a year ago, it would be appropriate today,” the senator added. “But let’s get all our facts together.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told CNN’s Jake Tapper that a military response “may be an option that we should consider now.”
“But it is further reason why it is so important that the President ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government,” she added. “Because without the support of Russia, I do not believe that Assad would still be in office.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), in a statement Sunday morning, said in part that “[t]he world must hold Assad and his enablers in Russia and Iran responsible for this.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), without explicitly supporting a military response, said in a tweet that the alleged attack “is a horror that cannot be tolerated by responsible nations” and that “[t]he U.S. must continue to lead an international effort to hold the Assad regime and Russia accountable for their actions.”
“The President is now obligated to act,” Republican strategist and former Bush administration official Karl Rove told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, adding later: “He’s on the line.”
Democrats were less explicit.
The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), said in a statement that “[t]his latest catastrophe is proof that a limited use of military force in Syria without a broad and fully-resourced diplomatic strategy, as President Trump chose to do in April of 2017, was ineffective.”
“To make matters worse, the President’s recent plans to freeze U.S. assistance to the Syrian people, and the administration’s failure to put forth a comprehensive plan, other than calling for an ‘immediate response’, are the latest missteps in their calamitous retreat from American leadership around the world,” Menendez added.
The senator said the United States “must not waiver” in its rejection of the use of chemical weapons but called for Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, currently the CIA director, “to articulate an actual policy for Syria.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he hoped Congress would be briefed on the alleged chemical weapons use.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot known because the Syrian regime has closed the area,” he added. “So we’re not going to have the direct information, so it will be challenging for us to know. Everything points to that this was controlled by President Assad and again a violation of international norms, and there needs to be an international response.”
This post has been updated.
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