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Trump's Rhetoric Doesn't Necessarily Match His Administration's Actions in Syria


The strikes on Syria over the weekend fit a pattern for a president who goes public with his instincts before policies have been finalized. Ultimately the U.S. conducted three targeted, narrow strikes on Syrian facilities connected to the regime's chemical weapons program. NPR's Tamara Keith reports it seemed short of what Trump had threatened.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: As images of dead and suffering children emerged from Syria a little more than a week ago, President Trump tweeted, President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing animal Assad - big price to pay.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is about humanity. We're talking about humanity, and it can't be allowed to happen.

KEITH: He echoed that sentiment in remarks in the Cabinet Room, saying if it's Syria or Iran or Russia or all of them together...


TRUMP: It's going to be very tough, very tough.


TRUMP: Everybody's going to pay a price. He will. Everybody will.

KEITH: Later when Russia suggested it would shoot down U.S. missiles, Trump tweeted again. Get ready, Russia, because they - referring to missiles - will be coming, nice and new and smart. In the end, though, Russia and Iran weren't hit by Friday night's military strikes conducted in partnership with France and the U.K. Thus far, there has been no price to pay beyond the strikes on three chemical weapons-related facilities.

ILAN GOLDENBERG: He just puts out his initial idea, then you deliberate, and then it turns out you have a different answer.

KEITH: Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, suggests this is how it played out.

GOLDENBERG: He was angry and emotional, and then his advisers came in and told him, you know, you really want to go big; this is what it's going to take, and these are the risks. And he thought about it and said, I don't want to do that, wisely.

KEITH: Another factor was likely that a more constrained response was what was required to have allies on board, says Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War. But she says the shifting messages - not knowing whether the president is making a statement or delivering an order - can be problematic.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: When we have confusing and apparently contradictory statements coming out of the president and the White House and his advisors, et cetera, it actually can undermine deterrence because it can cause a confused interpretation by the actor we're attempting to communicate with.

KEITH: Goldenberg blames this at least in part on process. In past administrations, when responding to a global crisis, they put out a vague statement while the policy was being worked out. In the Trump administration, often the president says what he's thinking before the policy process is complete, like saying he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria or expressing reservations about the long military commitment in Afghanistan only to increase the number of troops there and being flexible on the timeline for withdrawal from Syria. But Goldenberg says this may just be temporary.

GOLDENBERG: I think his core beliefs, the things he's been promising throughout the campaign, things he's been talking about for years - you can get the experts and his advisers to talk him off of it for a while, but eventually he goes there.

KEITH: Goldenberg points to Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem over the objections of allies and some of his advisers. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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