Trump edges toward military action in Syria

President Trump is weighing military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad after a deadly sarin gas attack on civilians that he condemned as “crossing many lines.”

The deliberations mark a stunning turnabout for an administration that was indicating just last week it was no longer a U.S. priority to remove Assad from power.

CNN first reported Thursday that Trump told members of Congress he’s considering military action in response to the chemical weapons attack. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day McConnell urges GOP senators to 'keep your powder dry' on Supreme Court vacancy McSally says current Senate should vote on Trump nominee MORE (R-Ariz.) later confirmed that he spoke with Trump about Syria.

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The president wouldn’t confirm the reports, but said, “something should happen” to Assad.

“He’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One when asked whether Assad should step down. 

“I don’t want to say what I’m going to be doing with respect to Syria.” 

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump has had discussions with foreign leaders about safe zones.

In a separate news conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there’s “no role” for Assad in Syria, a seeming reversal from his statement last week that the "longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”  

The top U.S. diplomat said the U.S. is working on an “appropriate response” to the chemical weapons attack.

"Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people," Tillerson said. 

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Trump is in Florida for a two-day summit with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort. 

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are also in Florida and are reportedly expected to brief the president Thursday evening on possible military options in Syria.

Military action in Syria, where the front-lines are blurry, poses numerous risks, chief among them the possibility of igniting a broader conflict.

Russian and Iranian troops have a heavy presence in Syria supporting Assad’s regime, so any military action against the country would risk pulling them into the fray.

Complicating matters further, there are around 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground in the Syria whose safety and security could become a concern. 

Yet Trump appears determined to chart a different course than his predecessor, President Obama, whom he repeatedly criticized for his handling of Syria.

Obama said Assad using chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would prompt U.S. military action. When a chemical weapons attack came, Obama sought approval from Congress for military action, only to later negotiate a deal with Russia to have Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed by an international watchdog.

But on Tuesday it became apparent the Obama-era deal had failed, as rebel-held Idlib province in Syria was struck with a chemical attack. More than 70 civilians were killed, including dozens of children, and scores more were injured. 

The Turkish health ministry said Thursday autopsies on three victims showed they were most likely exposed to sarin, a deadly nerve agent. 

Assad has used sarin on his citizens before, though he’s denied it both then and now. In 2013, an attack on Ghouta killed about 1,400 people.

Immediately after Tuesday’s attack, Trump criticized Obama for failing to enforce his red line, saying it had contributed to the chaos in Syria.

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement.

On Thursday, McCain said he urged Trump not to follow Obama’s path.

“I said, 'Obviously, I think we need to act,'” McCain said. “We don’t need to be Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina Majority of voters say Trump should not nominate a Supreme Court justice: poll MORE. The worst thing you can do is say you’re going to act and don’t act.”

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McCain said Trump told him in the Wednesday morning phone conversation that he’s consulting with Mattis and McMaster but did not indicate what specific options he is considering.

“He said that he was talking to his military advisers, which is what any president would do,” McCain said. 

Asked what the advisers are recommending to Trump, McCain said, “I don’t know. He hadn’t talked to them when I talked to him.” 

McCain and ally Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Video of Lindsey Graham arguing against nominating a Supreme Court justice in an election year goes viral Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina MORE (R-S.C.) are specifically advocating for actions to ground Assad’s air force, including shooting down aircraft.

He brushed aside concerns that such an action would prompt a military response from Russia, an ally of Assad.

“I think the Russians, as they always have, will not want a confrontation with the United States of America, and if they do, they will lose, because we are superior to them militarily,” he said.

Besides the diplomatic talks, one issue that stopped Obama from carrying out strikes against Assad was the lack of votes in Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force. An authorization passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but did not get a vote on the floor.

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Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday he hadn’t talked to Trump in the last 24 hours, but that he knows the administration is developing an “appropriate response.” 

He said he thinks Trump has the authority to carry out limited strikes.

“Typically presidents have the ability to make short-term steps,” Corker said. “We’re looking at that right now. And I’m sure there’s no way the president anticipates some long-term effort, but let’s wait and see what they propose.” 

But Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  Congress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the committee, said it would be “very hostile act” for Trump to take military action without at least consulting Congress.

“It’s up to the president to tell us, meet with us, explain it, get our confidence, and it’s our responsibility for Congress to weigh in as to what’s appropriate,” Cardin said. “He has no authority to go into Syria against the Assad regime. That would violate the War Powers Act.”

Cardin said creating safe zones in Syria, which would likely have to be enforced by the U.S. military, is “easier said than done.” 

“It’s hard to understand how that can be done without significant further engagement of U.S. military in Syria, and that’s a complicated situation,” he said. “It’s tough to enforce a military safe zone.”

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday pressed the Trump administration for a briefing on the attack and suggested Congress should respond. 

“The searing images of this war crime tear at our hearts and cry out for justice. Members of Congress expect a comprehensive intelligence briefing on this outrageous atrocity as soon as possible,” she said.

“Assad once again is outside the circle of civilized human behavior. And we want to get the briefing so that we can act upon it.” 

Jordan Fabian and Mike Lillis contributed