In President Trump's first major interview since ordering a military strike on a Syrian airfield late last week, he provided additional insight into his reasoning — and much of it had to do with his predecessor, whose Syria strategy he once endorsed.
“What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it, and you would have had a much better — I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been,” Trump said during an interview with Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo that aired Wednesday morning. “He didn't do it. I don't know what happened, but he didn't do it.... Even the Obama people admitted he was wrong for not doing it.”
Soon after the strike, Trump delivered a statement Thursday night from his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., saying that he was moved to act after reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill “helpless men, women and children,” including “beautiful babies.” After delivering those scripted remarks, the president retreated from public discussion of the attack, while his aides tried to explain how this strike fits with Trump's “America First” doctrine and campaign pledge not to get involved with conflicts in other countries.
In June 2013, in the wake of a deadly chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, Trump repeatedly praised President Barack Obama for not taking military action. In a tweet on June 15, 2013, Trump wrote: “We should stay the hell out of Syria, the 'rebels' are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO.” Later that summer, Trump repeatedly said Obama should seek congressional approval before taking action. In September 2013, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” On the campaign trail, Trump continued to oppose any involvement in Syria and accused Democrat Hillary Clinton and some of his Republican opponents of wanting to start World War III.
In the Fox Business interview, Trump promised that “we're not going into Syria,” but he also made clear that he's willing to take action when fellow world leaders use “horrible, horrible chemical weapons.” Trump expressed alarm at the Syrian regime's use of barrel bombs, oil drums packed with explosives and nails or other shrapnel that are rolled out of helicopters. These crude, imprecise munitions are dropped on Syria nearly daily and have killed thousands of people, according to activists tracking the deaths.
“That's the worst thing — I've never seen anything like it,” Trump said. “They have these massive barrels with dynamite, and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people.... You see the same kids — no arms, no legs, no face.”
Trump called Assad “an animal” and “truly an evil person” and said it is now up to Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his support of the Syrian regime.
“I really think that there's going to be a lot of pressure on Russia to make sure that peace happens, because, frankly, if Russia didn't go in and back this animal, you wouldn't have a problem right now,” Trump said. "[Assad] was going to be overthrown.... And then Russia came in and saved him. And then Obama made one of the worst deals in history with the Iran deal. So you really have Iran, and you have Russia, and you have Assad.”
Trump said that he closely followed coverage of the recent chemical attack in Syria and was horrified by images and footage of children and babies who were killed by the suspected nerve agent.
“I immediately called General Mattis. I said, 'What can we do?' " Trump said, referring to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. “And they came back with a number of different alternatives, and we hit them very hard. Now, are we going to get involved with Syria? No, but if I see them using gas and using things that — I mean, even some of the worst tyrants in the world didn't use the kind of gases that they used.”
Trump's criticism of Obama extended to other issues. He accused the former president of encouraging intelligence agencies to share damaging information about Trump and those close to him, along with reiterating his unfounded claim that Obama improperly surveilled “me and so many other people.” Trump mocked Obama for publicly discussing his military strategy, saying that, in contrast, he would keep his plans a secret.
“I don't want to talk about it,” Trump said when asked about the threat of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un. “We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you,” Trump said. “And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this: He is doing the wrong thing. He is doing the wrong thing.”
Trump also told the story — with a bit of delight — of how he informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of the Syrian strike. Xi visited the United States last week and was at Mar-a-Lago with the president when the strike occurred.
Trump said that he and Xi had just finished dinner and were eating dessert — “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen,” Trump said — and he received a message that the ships carrying the missiles were “locked and loaded.” Trump ordered the strike, then turned to Xi to explain what was happening.
“I said, 'Mr. President, let me explain something to you' — this was during dessert — 'we've just fired 59 missiles' — all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing,” Trump said, breaking into the dialogue of his own story with an aside that ended with accusing Obama of depleting the military.
Trump returned to telling his story.
“So what happens is, I said, 'We've just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq, and I wanted you to know this,' " Trump said, accidentally saying Iraq instead of Syria. “And he was eating his cake. And he was silent.”
Trump said Xi paused for 10 seconds, then asked an interpreter to repeat what Trump had said.
“He said to me, 'Anybody that uses gases' — you could almost say 'or anything else' — 'but anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies, it's okay,' " said Trump, who has been known to misquote people in recounting conversations. “He was okay with it. He was okay.”