By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann, nbcnews.com
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?
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.”