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Trump on possible Syria strike: ‘Nothing is off the table’

The comments come days after Trump declared it was time to ‘get out’ of Syria.

Updated

President Donald Trump said on Monday that his administration will decide in the next “24 to 48 hours” how to respond to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria over the weekend, adding that “nothing is off the table.”

“This is about humanity, and it can’t be allowed to happen,” the president said during a Cabinet meeting. “It was atrocious. It was horrible. You don’t see things like that. As bad as the news is around the world, you just don’t see those images. We are studying that situation extremely closely.”

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“We’ll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

The suspected poison gas attack on Saturday in the suburbs of Damascus killed dozens of people, and on Monday, Syria and Russia blamed Israel for early morning air strikes on a military base in Syria.

After a similar chemical weapons attack a year ago, Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian air base, and the latest incident will test the president’s declaration just a few days ago that he wants “to get out” of the civil-war ravaged country — a statement that was at odds with the advice of some top U.S. military leaders.

On Monday, Trump took a much more hawkish tone. “Nothing is off the table, nothing is off the table,” Trump said when asked by reporters about the possibility of U.S. military action in response to the chemical attack.

He also noted that he was meeting with senior military leadership at the White House later on Monday, and said, “We’ll be making that decision very quickly, probably by the end of today.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday morning also said that the U.S. won’t “rule out anything right now” in regards to whether any military actions against Syria were possible.

It’s unclear, however, how much appetite Trump has for escalating the United States’ military entanglement with Syria, which also proved to be a quagmire for former President Barack Obama.

Trump said during a speech in Ohio on March 29 that United States will end its military presence in Syria “very soon” — a statement that was in contrast to prior comments from his secretaries of state and defense. Last Tuesday, Trump reiterated that he wants to get out of Syria and that his administration will make a decision on that “very quickly.”

But on Friday, the White House released a statement about the future of the U.S. military in Syria that did not call for withdrawal and instead just stated that U.S. troop presence in Syria “is coming to a rapid end.”

Still, some critics claimed Trump’s strident statements about wanting to get out of Syria emboldened Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and could have played a role in the weekend’s attack.

“President Trump last week signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria,” Sen. John McCain said. “Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him, and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children, this time in Douma.”

The White House pushed back against that assertion, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling it “outrageous” during the press briefing Monday.

One unknown is how much of a factor national security adviser John Bolton, who started on the job on Monday will play in the deliberations.

Bolton last April said in an interview with Breitbart that he believes the United States should police the use of weapons of mass destruction because “nobody else is going to do it, anywhere in the world.” He also said he believed that Trump‘s view to see Syria’s chemical attacks as a threat to the United States was consistent to the “policy of the United States for decades to prevent the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction and to oppose their use, particularly against innocent civilians.”

But he also said in September 2013 that he would vote against a plan to use military strikes in Syria if he were a member of Congress at that time.

John McCain is pictured. | Getty Images

Another dimension of the Syria debate is Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Trump ramping up his criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin — going as far as putting blame on the Kremlin for the attack in Syria this past weekend.

“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” the president tweeted Sunday. “If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”

“If it’s the Russians, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out, and we’ll know the answers quite soon,” the president said Monday of the chemical attack.

He also said that Putin may share responsibility for that attack. “He’ll pay a price. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will,” Trump said.

It was an unusually harsh tone from Trump, who has been criticized for his reluctance to condemn Putin, in addition to his unwillingness to blame Russia for its its interference in the 2016 election, which the intelligence community concluded was aimed at helping Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller is currently conducting an investigation into the meddling and its relation to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The president on Monday added that the U.S. is looking into the “barbaric act and studying what’s going on.“ If Syria is innocent of the attack, he asked why they weren’t “allowing people to go in and prove“ the country did not do it.

“We’re trying to get people in there, as you know it’s been surrounded. It’s hard to get people in,” Trump said. “Not only has it been hit, it’s been surrounded.“

A handful of Republican lawmakers, returning from a two-week spring break, on Monday encouraged actions against Syria, saying Assad must be punished.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) floated the idea of furthering sanctions against Russia, which has supported the Assad regime. Wicker added that the U.S. needs “to make [Assad] pay a price.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also labeled Assad as a war criminal and called on the U.S. to attack their air force bases, while House Armed Services Committee Chairman William “Mac” Thornberry also called for additional airstrikes against Syria.

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