On The Record: President Trump Vs. Private Citizen Trump On Syria

Apr 4, 2017

In an official statement, President Trump described the recent chemical attack in Syria as "reprehensible" and went on to argue the "heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution." In other words, he blamed former President Barack Obama.

Returning to a common theme of his campaign, Trump's statement concluded, "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack."

Trump's criticism of Obama's policy on Syria goes back to 2013. A private citizen at that time, he argued that the U.S. should not get involved in the conflict.

On Tuesday, Trump's statement did not include what — if anything — his administration would do about the recent attack or what his posture will be toward Assad in light of it. Press secretary Sean Spicer said that the president's statement "speaks for itself." He said Trump is meeting with his national security team, is "alarmed" at what is happening and that there will be further discussions with allies about the appropriate action. He added, "I think, at this point, as things develop, I'm not ready to talk about our next step, but we'll get there soon."

Spicer also referenced Obama's red line comment, in which the then-president said, "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

At the time, Trump didn't say anything about it on Twitter. It wasn't until Syria started dominating the headlines in the summer of 2013 that Trump began weighing in. Two days after the U.S. concluded the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, Trump tweeted that the U.S. "should stay the hell out of Syria."

His message: Stay out; Syria is not America's problem. And Trump was relatively consistent on that as the conflict in Syria intensified and the Obama administration contemplated an expanded U.S. role.

In late August 2013, the U.S. and international community concluded that the Syrian government had again used chemical weapons. The Obama administration was reportedly considering a military strike against Syria to send a message, and private citizen Trump questioned whether it was worth it.

And long before he was a candidate, Trump was critical of politicians — including Obama — for telegraphing their military strategy.

On Aug. 30, 2013, a U.S. intelligence assessment found more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in the chemical weapons attack. Trump's tweets focused on how that made the U.S. look.

The next day, Aug. 31, Obama announced he would seek congressional approval to carry out strikes in Syria. This was widely seen as a way to back away from the red line he had drawn, putting the responsibility for a decision to escalate involvement in Syria on the shoulders of Congress.

It rapidly became clear that Congress wasn't going to be able to agree on authorizing force — and that Congress really didn't want the responsibility.

On Sept. 5, 2013, Trump's concern was that Obama had set the red line in the first place.

A day later, seemingly joking, Trump offered his own solution: Use Obamacare in Syria so "they would self-destruct."

Secretary of State John Kerry ultimately worked out a multinational agreement, including Russia, in which Assad would agree to give up his chemical weapons. Trump's assessment was not positive.

In the end, he concluded the way Obama had handled Syria made America look weak.

That's a view President Trump continues to hold, as evidenced by the statement he released on Tuesday.

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And for more on the Trump administration's reaction to the chemical weapons attack in Syria, we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.


SIEGEL: What has President Trump actually said about this?

KEITH: Well, earlier today, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, as we just heard, described the attack as heinous. He was actually reading a statement from President Trump that was later released in text form. And I want you to just hear a little bit more of Spicer reading from that statement.


SEAN SPICER: (Reading) These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a, quote, unquote, "red line" against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.

KEITH: The statement blames President Obama, but it doesn't actually say how Trump plans to respond to this attack or what his administration's posture is toward Assad.

SIEGEL: Well, apart from the statement, is there any indication of where the Trump administration is headed on this or what the plan is?

KEITH: Well, so one thing to know about President Trump - and this goes back well before he was the president, even before he was a candidate - is that he doesn't like politicians, political leaders telegraphing where they might be going on military matters.

So as a candidate, he said that he had a plan for defeating ISIS, but he wouldn't say what it was because he didn't want to tip them off. His critics said then and now that Trump didn't have a plan for ISIS and that he doesn't have one for dealing with Assad on Syria - in Syria.

What Press Secretary Sean Spicer says is that the president's statement speaks for itself and that he is meeting with his national security team. He's alarmed about what's happening and that there will be further discussions with allies about the appropriate next action. But he simply said he was not ready to talk about next steps, but they will, quote, "get there soon."

SIEGEL: Tam, before this latest development, there were mixed messages coming from top Trump administration officials about Assad, and I'm thinking of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, who described the Syrian leader as a war criminal. What is the administration's position?

KEITH: Yeah, there's been something of a back and forth on this recently. First Haley said that the U.S. priority was no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson essentially said the same thing, that the Syrian people themselves should decide what happens with Assad.

But then - you're right - Nikki Haley on Monday said the administration has no love for Assad. She called him a war criminal and a hindrance to peace. Spicer says the administration's view is consistent, that there is not an option of regime change as there has been in the past.

SIEGEL: I want to go back to the president's statement criticizing President Obama and the red line that Obama drew in 2012 with regard to chemical weapons. Donald Trump has left a long Twitter trail in his wake, and Twitter presents a window into the mind of the private citizen Donald Trump. I gather you've been looking back at what he was saying then. What did you find?

KEITH: Yeah, so there are a lot of tweets about this, none from 2012 when President Obama first used the term red line. But then later in 2013 when the U.S. was thinking about a military strike in Syria to send a message about chemical weapons, Trump tweeted, quote, "President Obama, do not attack Syria; there is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder for another and more important day."

He around the same time also tweeted, President Obama put himself in a very bad position when he talked about Syria crossing a red line; amazingly, now he denies that. So Trump all along has been very focused on President Obama's response and at times said that he looked weak.

SIEGEL: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.