Trump draws criticism from his base over Syria

Trump draws criticism from his base over Syria
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP lawmakers preparing to vote on bill allowing migrant children to be detained longer than 20 days: report Wasserman Schultz: Infants separated from their parents are in Florida immigrant shelters Ex-White House ethics chief: Sarah Sanders tweet violates ethics laws MORE has drawn criticism from some of his most vociferous conservative supporters over his decision to again intervene militarily in Syria, highlighting the pressure on the president to retain a non-interventionist, "fortress America"-style foreign policy.

Conservatives wary of U.S. involvement overseas who liked Trump's criticism of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were deeply disappointed with his decision to launch missile strikes for a second time on Syria.

But it’s not clear if the public criticism is indicative of a deeper schism. Many Trump supporters say they don’t see lasting political damage from the Syria strikes.


“What Trump said was ‘America First.’ That means putting America’s interests first, and we have legitimate interests in Syria,” said James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who worked on the Trump transition. “Trump’s base trusts the president to do what’s in the interest of the American people.”

The United States, along with allies France and the United Kingdom, launched 105 missiles Friday night at three targets tied to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program.

The strikes, done in response to an alleged chemical attack carried out by Assad, was the second time Trump has directly targeted the government. More than a year ago, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase involved in another chemical attack attributed to Assad.

Friday’s strike was more extensive than last year’s — but not as extensive as some had pushed for. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.), for example, was advocating Trump destroy Assad’s air force and even target Assad himself.

Just days before the suspected chemical attack in Syria, Trump was pushing his military advisers to withdraw from the country, where U.S. troops are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as soon as possible.

Trump’s desire to pull out of the war-torn country reflects his promises on the campaign trail, when he vowed to end so-called nation-building missions. He also repeatedly claimed to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, though statements from the early 2000s contradict that.

After the strikes Friday, the Pentagon and other administration officials stressed the operation was designed specifically to avoid further escalation that would drag the U.S. into the seven-year-old Syrian civil war.

Trump and the White House also stressed that the U.S.’s overall approach to Syria — one focused on eradicating ISIS — was unchanged and that Trump still plans to withdraw from Syria as soon as possible.

But far-right pundits were brutal in their reaction to Trump’s decision to strike.

“F--k Trump, and f--k these f-----g people,” Infowars host Alex Jones said Friday night on a Periscope stream before his show officially started.

“He was doing good and that’s what makes it so bad,” Jones added during the show, as he began crying. “If he had been a piece of crap from the beginning, it wouldn’t be so bad. We’ve made so many sacrifices and now he’s crapping all over us. It makes me sick.”

Over on Fox News, host Laura Ingraham sparred with former Trump adviser Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaIs the Department of Justice inspector general truly impartial? Kim Jong Un understands Trump better than the G-7 did Hannity and Gorka headed to Singapore for Trump-Kim summit MORE over the strike.

“I guess it feels good because there are horrible things happening there,” Ingraham said Friday. “But what do we really accomplish here tonight in Syria? This is not why Donald Trump got elected.”

Still, not all conservative commentators slammed Trump’s decision.

“There are Trump supporters and Agenda supporters,” pundit Bill Mitchell tweeted Friday. “Trump supporters trust Trump's judgment and elected him to use it. Agenda supporters trust Trump as long as he follows their agenda and question his judgment every time he doesn’t.”

On Capitol Hill, where the administration briefed lawmakers Tuesday on the strikes, Republicans reacted mostly positively. They praised Trump for acting decisively to respond specifically to Assad’s apparent chemical weapons use.

But a few non-interventionist Republicans criticized Trump for acting without congressional authorization.

In an op-ed published Tuesday by CNN, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP senators call for probe of federal grants on climate change Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Key ObamaCare groups in limbo | Opioids sending thousands of kids into foster care | House passes bill allowing Medicaid to pay for opioid treatments US watchdog: 'We failed' to stem Afghan opium production MORE (R-Ky.) urged Trump to “trust [his] gut” and not get involved further in Syria.

“President Trump is listening far too much to the foreign policy swamp that he fought against,” Paul wrote. “We need to rebuild our military, not overuse it policing the world and nation-building. President Trump knew it when he was running for office. He even knew it two weeks ago when he instructed his foreign policy team to get out of Syria. But he's listened to some bad advice from the same people who created many of these messes in the first place.”

After emerging from Tuesday’s briefing, Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieSenate braces for Trump showdown over Chinese telecom giant Overnight Defense: Trump, Kim poised for historic summit | Trump blasts 'haters and losers' hours before meeting | Defense bill to include ZTE penalties | Lawmakers sound alarm over 'catastrophic' Yemen offensive Lawmakers circulate 'urgent call' for Mattis to prevent 'catastrophic' Yemen offensive MORE (R-Ky.), who believes the strikes were unconstitutional, would not comment on whether he thinks Trump is breaking his campaign promises.

But, he added, he thinks Trump’s advisers are in conflict with the president’s instincts.

“I think his instincts were right,” Massie said. “I think his instincts are still right, and I think he’s surrounded by people who are pushing him against his instincts.”

Despite the criticism, Andy Keiser, a principal at Navigators Global who worked on the Trump transition’s national security team, said he thinks “regular people” will move on so long as Trump stays true to his key campaign promises, such as those on immigration.

“We’ve seen the president’s base be willing to accommodate him when he moves his positions on the margins,” he said. “Punishing the Assad regime is certainly more complicated with the base [than fighting ISIS]. That’s why you see a focus on actions that are out of bounds as far as chemical weapons use.”

But, he said, the strikes were designed to limit the type of escalation that would be more problematic for Trump.

“He’s not sending in the 101st Airborne and 100,000 troops,” Keiser said. “It’s a different level of concern than say Iraq or Afghanistan, where we were going in and committing to regime change and then having to occupy the country for a period. I don’t I think see that in Syria from this president.”

Carafano, the Heritage expert, said similarly that voters are more concerned with domestic policy, so they will be fine with Trump’s Syria strikes so long as he avoids a larger war.