Donald Trump became president on Wednesday for perhaps the first time, when he showed honest, heartfelt feeling for the innocent Syrian victims of a nerve gas attack — particularly the innocent babies, children and women killed.
And it wasn’t just that President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE had a feeling in public that wasn’t anger, disgust or “sad!” He also stepped up to a presidential level of responsibility. He accepted personal responsibility for deciding how to respond to Bashar Assad’s horrific mass murder: “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly," Trump said.
Could this be a new Donald Trump?
Days after his administration began making noises that Syria’s Assad is a fact of life to be accepted, Trump changed his mind. We may have even seen him change his mind in real time:
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change. Well, I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said. “I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much, and if you look back over the last few weeks, there were other attacks using gas. You’re now talking about a whole different level,” the president added.
The president seemed confident last week that Assad was behind the attack, and we can assume that Trump is taking in information from the intelligence agencies now. Perhaps he is also taking advice from his National Security Council that no longer has a far-right, political propaganda strategist — Steve Bannon — at its center.
But immediately Trump was countered by Assad’s protector, Vladimir Putin, with fake news: "According to the objective data of the Russian airspace control, Syrian aviation struck a large terrorist warehouse near Khan Shaykhun that housed a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances," the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.
Putin has directly challenged Trump’s truthfulness. Now Trump knows what it is like to face propaganda and lies.
Trump should now want to fight horror with the best truth he can find about the event and who is responsible. And who is providing that truth to him — is it Breitbart? Fox News? A wacky conspiracy theorist? No, it is his former enemies: the intelligence agencies.
Maybe there is hope. Maybe Trump will even come to believe in the value of science someday.
Before the Syria massacre, Trump was busy discovering the limits of governing with only his “excellent” instincts, “great” brain and far-right white base and leaders. How often has he triumphed since his inauguration? His Muslim bans were stopped in court. His threats to members of Congress could not stop the healthcare fiasco. His coal industry executive order offers little actual hope to coal miners. His federal budget proposal with a military expansion and domestic cuts is known to be a nonstarter, and the tax reform bill now looks hard to do. Devin Nunes was caught acting like a stooge. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE was forced to recuse himself. Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort were fired. Bannon was just demoted.
On the other hand, he’s succeeded on the Gorsuch nomination.
Now that Trump has had at least a day or two of being president, not just playing one on Twitter and in our ongoing national reality TV show, will he remain presidential?
Will he have more moments of empathy for those who are victimized or need help — even if they are not innocent babies gassed to death by a brutal regime? Can last week’s kernel of empathy expand and encompass, for example, the homeless people living in the shadow of busy highways? Aren’t they being gassed with toxic chemicals too, just at a slower rate? Or city-dwellers taking in toxic substances in their water supply like in Flint, Mich., or farmworkers and their families exposed to pesticides?
Can Trump’s compassion expand to the poor children and adults who have a place to live but can’t afford enough food? Or to those who are sick but don’t have enough money to pay for both medicine and heat?
Will President Trump learn finally to be an American, which includes accepting responsibility for the well-being of others in our political community? Defending “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all means ensuring no one in our wealthy but highly unequal society suffers for lack of food, shelter, education or medical care because they are poor.
And while we are day-dreaming, perhaps we can also hope that Trump will develop a different attitude toward fake news, having now faced it himself. Will he come to see that originating or spreading fake news is a hostile act that always has victims in one way or another — that fake news is a form of aggression, a means of control?
Perhaps the FBI or congressional Russian-Trump campaign investigations will find treasonous collusion — and maybe not. But even if Trump himself is turned out of office, it will take quite some time to get there, as the investigations and legal and congressional processes unfold.
In the meantime, we have Trump as president, and the more he relates to issues by being concerned, caring and empathetic for the people involved — as he was for the latest innocent victims in Syria —the better.
Let’s hope this is the start of a brand-new journey of compassion and responsibility for Donald Trump at age 70. But if not, continue to be ready to resist.
Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., is a research professor of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University. Follow him on Twitter @MrkFnbrg
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.