Trump vows swift response on Syria

Trump vows swift response on Syria
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE on Monday promised a swift response to an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, insisting that those responsible will “pay a price.”

“We'll be making that decision very quickly, probably by the end of today,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting, adding, “We cannot allow atrocities like that. Cannot allow it.”

The president condemned the “heinous attack,” which left at least 40 people dead, including children, and has been blamed on Syrian President Bashar Assad. Trump also suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies, shoulders some of the blame.

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“He may. Yeah, he may,” Trump said when asked about Putin, whom he has been reluctant to criticize by name. “And if he does, it's going to be very tough. Very tough. Everybody is going to pay a price. He will. Everybody will.”

The alleged strike on civilians in the former opposition stronghold of Douma drew international condemnation and sent the White House scrambling to respond.

John Bolton spent his first morning on the job as Trump’s national security adviser leading a meeting with senior officials to discuss possible responses. In 2013, Bolton opposed a possible military strike on Syria in response to a sarin gas attack carried out by Assad. Then-President Obama decided against a military response.

Trump was also set to discuss options later Monday with his national security team and military brass.

“Nothing is off the table,” Trump said.

The president said the U.S. is still working to determine who was behind the suspected attack.

“If it's Russia, 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,” he said. “So we're looking at that very, very strongly and very seriously.”

The State Department told Reuters on Monday that victims’ symptoms were consistent with an asphyxiation or nerve agent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there was no evidence that a chemical weapons attack took place in Douma, in Damascus's northeast suburbs.

Moscow’s denials left the U.S. and its allies unconvinced.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyWill Trump ignore the Constitution and stay in White House beyond his term? Trump taps ex-State spokeswoman Heather Nauert to help oversee White House fellowships Conservatives slam Omar over tweet on Gaza violence MORE pointed a finger at Russia.

“The Russian regime, whose hands are all covered in the blood of Syrian children, cannot be ashamed by pictures of its victims,” Haley said. “We’ve tried that before. We must not overlook Russia and Iran’s roles in enabling the Assad regime’s murderous destruction.”

Haley also pledged the U.S. would respond “either way,” regardless of whether the U.N. does.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisShanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate Trump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report MORE suggested Russia did not uphold a deal to help dispose of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

“The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

Mattis, who is one of Trump’s most trusted advisers, also did not rule out a military strike.

The Syrian and Russian governments blamed Israel for an airstrike on a major Syrian military base overnight that reportedly killed 14 people. Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

While the chemical attack was still being investigated, Republicans on Capitol Hill urged Trump to act without delay.

Last April, Trump launched a barrage of cruise missiles against a Syrian air base in response to a sarin gas attack that killed more than 80 people — the type of response many lawmakers said the president should carry out again.

“The president responded with a targeted strike against those Syrian military units that carried out the attack,” Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: 1,500 troops heading to Mideast to counter Iran | Trump cites Iran tensions to push through Saudi arms sale | Senate confirms Army, Navy chiefs before weeklong recess Trump to send 1,500 troops to Middle East to counter Iran Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info MORE (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News. “I thought that made very good sense, and it seems to me we ought to consider doing it again with our allies.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump declassification move unnerves Democrats Climate change is a GOP issue, too New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE (R-S.C.), a longtime advocate for action against Assad, argued Monday for more aggressive action than the limited strike conducted last year. Specifically, Graham wants to the U.S. to destroy Assad’s air force or even target Assad himself.

“I think now he is a legitimate war criminal in the eyes of the international community,” he said on “Fox & Friends." “If you have the opportunity to take him out, you should.”

Sarin is banned under an international chemical weapons treaty. It remains unclear what type of substance was used in last weekend’s attack, which could complicate discussions about a response.

James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who is close with the Trump administration, said the U.S. should respond similarly to the latest reports of a chemical weapons attack.

He argued that something more, such as destroying Assad’s air force, risks plunging the U.S. into the Syrian civil war and possibly an armed conflict with Russia and Iran.

“Our interest is not to solve Syria. Our interests are to make sure [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] doesn’t have a sanctuary, that the conflict doesn’t bleed into Iraq and Jordan, and that we do not have a repeat of masses of migrants,” Carafano said.

Some lawmakers, however, said Trump should seek congressional approval before launching a strike.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOn The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity MORE (R-Utah), a frequent critic of military intervention, said a strike is warranted but that Trump “should come to Congress and ask for authorization before military force is used."

Critics said Trump’s strike last April was ultimately ineffective because there was no meaningful follow-up to ratchet up pressure on Assad.

The reports of the chemical weapons attack came just days after Trump announced he wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, comments that GOP critics said emboldened Assad to use increasingly brutal tactics against his own people.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that Assad, Russia and Iran “heard” Trump’s desire to withdraw from Syria, “and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children.”

Responding to McCain, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “outrageous to say the president of the United States green-lit something as atrocious as the actions that have taken place over the last several days.”

Robert Ford, the United States' former ambassador to Syria, said he does not think Trump’s talk of withdrawing led Assad to conduct the attack, pointing to the leader’s regular use of chemical weapons since 2013.

Ford said the U.S. cannot change the outcome of the war. But he argued that the U.S still needs to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria and can only do so by being consistent in its response.

“In order to deter future use, Assad needs to understand that every single time he use chemical weapons, America will strike. Establishing deterrence that way cannot be done by one big shock-and-awe strike,” said Ford.