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Syria Airstrike Politics


National political correspondent Mara Liasson has been watching reaction to the attack on Syria here in Washington among the many other political stories buffeting the Trump administration and, by extension, the voters. Mara's with us now. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did this attack on Syria unfold in your view?

LIASSON: It unfolded because President Trump needed to square the circle. He said he wanted to get out of Syria in a few months. Then, a couple days after, he said that there was this new chemical weapons attack, and that was a red line for him. So he had to do something to accomplish both of those goals. And it unfolded, in some ways, in a remarkably un-Trumpian (ph) way because he did do it with his - with the United States allies, with France and the United Kingdom. He did a very narrow strike. He took his military advisers' advice. It did have a little more firepower than the strike he conducted a year ago, but it wasn't big enough to get a reaction from the Russians or to severely weaken the Assad regime.

And he has gotten some criticism, interestingly, from some of his previously most supportive conservative voices, like Ann Coulter and Alex Jones of InfoWars but also from Congress, who've been asking the same questions as your previous guest, which is, what is the overall strategy for solving the Syrian crisis? So far, the strategy seems to be defeat ISIS and get out. And, wherever possible, make it contrast with President Obama. But the strategy does seem to be very similar to President Obama's - do the bare minimum to save face when chemical weapons are used.

And it is possible that maybe you can't really solve the Syrian problem or even stop Assad from using chemical weapons if you're not willing to risk hitting some Russians because all of Syria's most valuable military assets now are intertwined with Russians in Syria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you say that some of his actions have been uncharacteristically un-Trumpian and that they're reminiscent of Obama. But what is Trumpian is that he's been conducting Syria policy over Twitter.

LIASSON: That's right, and he previewed the strikes. He said they were coming fast and smart. The missiles were coming. He then backtracked and said, maybe I haven't decided on a strike. And then, he tweeted something that really got everyone's attention. He said mission accomplished, which are two words that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very infamous words...

LIASSON: ...George W. Bush famously used. And he used them the last time we were involved in a Middle East conflict, declared it accomplished. And it turns out it wasn't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, far from it. Let's turn to some other things that are happening this week. It's not been a dull week in Washington. The president spent this past week exhibiting a lot of fury and anxiety. And, indeed, that has continued on Twitter today about the special counsel investigation, which sprouted yet another inquiry this week, and the raid on his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

LIASSON: That's right. We're learning that his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been the subject of a months-long criminal corruption investigation. We know that Cohen is in trouble for several things, including not paying taxes on his taxi medallion business. But Michael Cohen is about as close to Donald Trump as anyone who has been investigated so far. He's his personal lawyer. He knows all about the Trump Organization deals all around the world because he helped negotiate some of them. We also find out just tangentially that he even helped negotiate a deal between an - the vice chairman of the RNC and a model, who he had an affair with and got pregnant.

But we know that Trump has been responding with tremendous fury on Twitter about this. He's expressed privately a renewed desire to shut down the Mueller investigation, maybe by firing Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. And what we did learn this week is that no matter what happens with Mueller's core investigation, it has now sprouted little saplings in New York because Mueller referred some of this information to the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. And even if the Mueller investigation is shut down, a lot of these investigations in some form will continue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amid all this, there was another blast from the past when the president pardoned Scooter Libby. What does this have to do with Trump, Mara? Why would he do that?

LIASSON: This has been widely interpreted as a signal from Trump to people under investigation, don't flip. If you're convicted, I will pardon you because Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury. Even George W. Bush, who he served, didn't want to pardon him. Instead, he commuted his sentence. And, ironically, on Friday, Trump started the day by tweeting about James Comey, calling him a liar and a leaker, and ended the day by pardoning Scooter Libby, convicted of lying in a case about leaking a case about blowing the cover of a CIA agent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And speaking of James Comey, he's beginning his very public book tour this evening. And, certainly, many people here in Washington and media and politics have already voraciously read this book. But what don't we know yet about Mr. Comey and what he's going to say?

LIASSON: We don't know everything he's going to say. We also don't know how Donald Trump will react to this over time. We know that he's responding today. He is up and tweeting about Comey. He's calling him a liar, saying he deserves to be in jail. But Comey's...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A slimeball, I think, is what...

LIASSON: Slimeball. We know his book tour starts today on ABC. The RNC is working on an effort to brand Comey as Lying Comey. And this is going to be a larger-than-life battle. It's really a clash of larger-than-life figures. Comey, of course, is 6 feet 8. But it's the - going to be the kind of high-profile media celebrity frenzy that can only be described as Trumpian.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, breaking it down as always. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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