The president of the United States announced Wednesday that he would launch a military attack on a foreign country. The White House now says no final decision has been made.
Whatever you think of the Trump administration, that is an astonishing paragraph.
Trump tweeted early in the day that Russia should “get ready” to shoot down U.S. missiles in Syria, as it has said it would if the United States struck Bashar al-Assad’s government over a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians just days ago. He made clear that the missiles were, in fact, on the way.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” he said.
That’s unambiguous. Yet, 10 hours later, there have been no strikes. The Defense Department says a review is still underway when it comes to culpability for the suspected chemical weapons attack. Now press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says no final decisions have been made about a response.
“The president has not laid out a timetable and is still leaving a number of options on that front,” she said. “A final decision hasn’t been made.”
Asked to clarify whether Trump had, in fact, announced military action Wednesday morning, Sanders described it merely as an “option.” “That’s certainly one option, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only option,” she said.
Except it’s not an “option”; it's what the president said was going to happen. Whether he got cold feet or made an announcement that was not ready for public consumption, it was a stunning bit of backtracking from the White House on Wednesday.
It was the second time Trump has said something that did not turn out to be true about that situation. He said Monday he would make a decision on the matter within 48 hours, and that deadline has passed.
The whole situation is causing concern in some corners of Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News radio Wednesday that promising an attack and not delivering sends a horrible message.
“Look, you cannot go out and say you are going to do something and not do it in this world. It’s beginning to happen too many times. It is happening too much,” said Corker, who once harshly criticized Trump but has since aligned with him. “We seem to say things and then move on . . . and the world is watching, and people are dying.
“The president has said, though, what he was going to do. I think it is important as a nation that we follow through on those things. We’ve waited too long already.”
It also happens to be what Trump repeatedly railed against former president Barack Obama for — setting a red line and then failing to enforce it. Trump effectively said Wednesday morning that his red line has been crossed and that action was imminent. Now the White House says that may not be the case.
It is also the second time in two weeks that Trump seems to have announced something prematurely when it comes to Syria. Thirteen days ago, it was that the United States would be pulling out of Syria “very soon.” That wasn’t quite what wound up being proposed.
It seems that even when it comes to going to war, Trump’s words should be taken seriously, not literally.