RICHMOND — A state legislator who once flew to Damascus for a two-hour sit-down with Bashar al-Assad took to the floor of the Virginia Senate this week to say the Syrian president might have been framed with a suspected chemical attack — if the attack happened at all.
“It is not entirely clear that there was an attack,” Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) said in a 20-minute speech on the floor of Virginia Senate on Wednesday. “There was a doctor, from the hospital — from the main hospital in Douma — who has said, ‘We haven’t received any casualties. Nobody has been sent in.’ ”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global watchdog, has sent inspectors to Syria to try to confirm whether it was a chemical attack that killed dozens in Damascus on Saturday.
But in Richmond, the sequence of events was clear: Black spoke; Democrats erupted.
“While legislators from around the Commonwealth came to Richmond for a special session to work out a budget and deliver healthcare to 400,000 Virginians in the Medicaid coverage gap, Dick Black felt a better use of the people’s time was to mock Assad’s latest chemical atrocity as a ‘false flag’ attack,” the Democratic Party of Virginia said in a news release. “Black said not a word about the budget or helping uninsured Virginians, using his time only to offer a defense of one of the world’s most murderous dictators.”
The liberal website Blue Virginia posted video of the speech under the headline: “Long Bizarre Rambling Speech About Syria by GOP Senator Dick Black.”
Black got similar blowback in 2016, after his visit with Assad, someone the senator regards as a protector of Syrian Christians and a buffer against Islamic extremism. Same thing in 2014, when he wrote a letter of praise to Assad, which the Syrian president posted on Facebook.
Black, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and retired Pentagon lawyer, avidly follows news from the Middle East. His support for Assad once earned him a spot on the Islamic State’s enemies list — something the senator regarded as a backhanded compliment.
He took up for Assad again this week as the Senate gathered to begin a special session on the state budget. As nearly two hours of strictly perfunctory, procedural business wrapped up, Black asked to address the body.
He expressed concern that President Trump — whom Black largely supports — will launch a military strike against Assad “regardless of whether there was an actual attack and without regard to who may have staged it.”
He went on to say the United States has been at war in the Middle East for 17 years with no end in sight. That former Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) had been right when he said that without a military draft, Americans are more careless about sending troops into battle. That national leaders who make the call, such as former vice president and defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, never went to war themselves.
His comments drew mixed reactions from Senate colleagues. Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) deemed the speech a time-wasting non sequitur.
“It’s not relevant to our work,” Ebbin said.
It might make sense for a state lawmaker to call “brief attention” to foreign policy under “extraordinary circumstances,” Ebbin said. Ebbin himself spoke on the floor about Trump’s entry ban in February 2017, something that it “affected people here in Virginia” — and he said he promptly got a scolding from Republican Senate leadership.
Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) said that he was not sure what to make of Black’s take on the Middle East but that he was happy to listen.
“Senator Black served heroically in Vietnam, both on the ground and in the air,” he said. “Some of the most memorable speeches he’s given — that anyone’s given in the Senate — are about his experience in Vietnam and the friends he lost and the friends he made while he was there. My mind’s on state issues lately, but he lived a whole life before he came here that informs his foreign policy views.”
Black found a way to tie Syria to the work at hand in the Senate. He was discussing the brutality of the Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, which he said had been cornered and was negotiating its fighters’ evacuation from Douma.
“Apparently the big kahuna for Jaysh al-Islam did not like what his negotiators were doing,” Black said. “And unlike what we do here in the Senate, where if we don’t like what our conferees do, we appoint some new conferees. When his conferees came back, he had them all executed. That’s a cautionary note to some of you.”
As he said that, Black pointed to Republican Sens. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta) and Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach), two budget negotiators who have threatened to break ranks with the GOP in a standoff over expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls.
The chamber erupted into laughter. Black chuckled, too, adding, “I know I’ve got some people worried at this point.”