‘Big price to pay’: Inside Trump’s decision to bomb Syria

From the moment White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly first informed him late last Saturday night that dozens of people in a leafy suburb of Damascus had died choking and foaming at the mouth from another suspected gas attack, President Trump was determined to strike back in Syria.

For him, the only question was how.

This was a sudden change of tune for a president who only a few days earlier had said he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria’s in­trac­table civil war and, as he put it at an event in Ohio, “Let other people take care of it now.”

But the images of last weekend’s atrocities haunted Trump, White House officials said, triggering six straight days of tense deliberations with his newly reorganized national security team — as well as coalition partners from France and the United Kingdom — over military options to retaliate against the alleged perpetrator he derided as “Animal Assad.”

The result was 105 missiles raining down on three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities Friday night. The morning after, Trump tweeted — perhaps fatefully, considering President George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq — “Mission Accomplished!”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, joined by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., brief reporters at the Pentagon on April 13, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Even with Trump’s jubilant response to the strikes, several advisers close to the president said they had no indication there was a long-term strategy for the region — and he seems essentially in the same position now as he was after last April’s attacks on Syria.

The missile strikes Friday night came at an especially traumatic moment. The commander in chief was increasingly agitated over the past week as legal and personal crises converged around him, exhibiting flashes of raw anger, letting off steam on Twitter and sometimes seeming distracted from his war planning.

As the military brass put together the final details on the Syria strike plan, for instance, Trump was following the New York court proceedings involving his personal lawyer Michael Cohen and was fixated on media coverage of fired FBI director James B. Comey’s new memoir. The book paints a scathing portrait of the president’s conduct in office and character, and Trump was personally involved Friday in drafting the scorching statement attacking Comey that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read from her podium Friday, according to a senior administration official.

Friday’s surgical strikes were more restrained than the images Trump tried to conjure with his bellicose tweets previewing the action. Last Sunday, he warned Assad and his government’s backers, Russia and Iran, “Big price to pay.” On Wednesday, he wrote that missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ”

But in closed-door national security meetings, the tone from top officials was decidedly more nuanced. Hanging over the discussions was concern that a U.S. attack in Syria might provoke a conflict with Russia, which had threatened to retaliate.