President Donald Trump on Tuesday blamed the Obama administration for a suspected gas attack against a rebel-held area in Syria that killed dozens of people, despite recent comments from senior officials who indicated the United States would no longer pursue Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer initially read the statement during an off-camera press briefing Tuesday morning, though it wasn’t clear at the time that it was attributed to Trump.
“President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing,” Trump continued. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”
Spicer added during the briefing, responding to questions, that he saw no relationship between the gas attack and recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Tillerson said in Turkey last Thursday that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” And Haley Haley said in New York the same day, “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
On Tuesday, Tillerson said that Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths resulting from the attack, according to the Associated Press.
Both statements reversed the United States’ policy during the Obama administration, which emphasized the need for Assad to step aside.
“The statements by both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley speak to the political realities of the situation in Syria,” Spicer said. “I think we had opportunities in the past several years to look at regime change. I think the landscape is fundamentally different than it is today.”
Trump, Spicer said, was meeting with his national security team, but would not “telegraph” the United States’ response to the attack.
Asked if the White House was ruling out the possibility that Russia – which has supported Assad with airstrikes in Syria – was involved in the attack, Spicer seemed to confirm as much.
“The statement is very clear as far as who we believe is to be blame and how we believe we’re reacting to it,” he said.
This post has been updated to reflect a statement from Trump released by the White House, and a remark from Tillerson to the Associated Press.