ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table are Abby Phillip of CNN, Michael Crowley of POLITICO, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, and Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal.
The White House is debating a response to the chemical attacks in Syria last week and has been doing that Thursday and Friday, a red line for many U.S. allies in this long-simmering war. The Trump administration is considering its options, and the president signaled a potential strike on Syria earlier this week with new and smart weapons. But it’s hard to predict exactly when that may happen. President Trump criticized President Barack Obama for announcing military strategy, so that may be part of it. But another element at play may be that his advisors have reportedly urged caution before getting involved in military conflict, especially in Syria.
Nancy, as we do this webcast on a Friday night around 8:30 p.m. Eastern, we’re getting reports everywhere, it seems, that action’s imminent. What are you hearing?
NANCY YOUSSEF: So at the Pentagon it’s an unusually busy Friday night. If you go through the hallways now you’ll see quite a few generals in meetings and planning sessions, and so there is certainly a feeling that something is imminent. I would point out that a strike this evening would be at around dawn Saturday morning on a very clear night in Syria, so the conditions sort of suggest that this would be an opportunity to do it. That said, this has been very different than what we’ve seen in the past. In the past there’s been an order signed and we’ve – and we’ve seen strikes shortly afterward, and that’s not happened here. We’ve had a series of meetings and there hasn’t been any real clear guidance from the administration in terms of what its end state is, how long these strikes would happen. We’ve just sort of seen pieces of a strategy kind of coming together publicly. There’s the USS Donald Cook, the destroyers in place, there are British and U.S. submarines in place, there’s a French frigate in the area, and so all the components are there. The challenge seems to be the timing of it and what the United States hopes to achieve by it, because again, the war that we’re seeing in the west is – the western side of the country is different than the one that we’ve heard about so much over the few years. The war in the west is about the Assad regime and its abuse of chemical weapons. The war in the east is the one against ISIS. And so for the U.S. to sort of switch and go back to the war against the Assad regime takes a lot of planning, and at this point sort of hurriedly being planned even as we – as we do this webcast.
MR. COSTA: Phil, you study the president every day. Tell me about this moment for him, almost a year after those first strikes.
PHILIP RUCKER: Well, there’s a lot on the line. We know the president was really moved by the reports of the gas attack earlier in the week and the images especially. Just as he was a year ago, it seems, he was down at Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Florida, ordering a similar attack in Syria. He’s been listening to his advisors. He’s been in these meetings. He’s also been very distracted by all the other stuff going on – the Mueller probe, the raid on the home and office of his personal attorney – so he’s not had complete focus on the Syria issue. But he cleared his schedule for this week. He wants to do these strikes. We saw him tweet about these missiles coming. And at this point I think it’s a matter of when, not whether he does it.
ABBY PHILLIP: It does seem very much, though, that the president boxed himself in with those tweets this week. He declared to Putin that missiles were coming, and in one way or another that meant that they needed to move much more quickly to come to a decision point about what exactly they wanted to do. And it could – we know from our reporting that at that moment, around 7:00 in the morning on a Wednesday, they hadn’t made a decision yet about whether or not they were going to use force in a definitive way, but the president forced that with his tweet. And perhaps it was a moment of anger; the Russians had overnight delivered a message to the United States that if there was an attack they would potentially retaliate. But that’s the sort of thing that a lot of people who watch this president warn. He is easily moved to action without thinking about it, without seeking advice, and often what Russia is doing is taunting him and leading him into moments like this. And he responded in almost exactly the way that they would have expected that he would, but – and now here we are. Obviously, the United States has a lot of interest in not allowing Assad to go where he went, but the timeline here is one that the president forced with his own public comments that he made without really consulting his advisors.
MR. COSTA: What about congressional Republicans? Where are they going to go if the president intervenes, as we expect?
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Well, I think, you know, you’ll see some support among congressional Republicans for this. There is a debate on Capitol Hill about whether or not a new authorization for the use of military force is needed. I think that the common wisdom is that the president has the authority to do what he’s doing in Syria without a new authorization. But I would look for that debate in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill about a new AUMF.
MR. COSTA: When you think about Assad, what is his standing inside of the country as this war continues? And how much would a strike really mean for his grip on power?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: I would say, Bob, that any strike that I can envision will not substantially affect Assad’s future. I mean, he has basically won the civil war and locked down Syria. There’s still swaths of territory that are chaotic. There are several countries vying for influence. But fundamentally, Assad’s grip on power seems to be strong. So the questions here are, you know, what is Trump trying to accomplish? I think it’s too late to change the balance of the Syrian civil war and overthrow Assad. So a lot of this is going to be signaling, kind of showing that you’re exacting a cost for the use of chemical weapons. But we’re not going to be affecting facts on the ground in a substantial way.
But a related question is, might we try to take a pound of flesh out of the Iranians who have been expanding their influence in Syria? The Israelis are very upset about that. There’s been a fair amount of Israel military action inside of Syria. Is it possible that we would piggyback some shots at Iran onto this? John Bolton is a really well-known Iran hawk in extremis, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that. And then finally, this question of do we hit any Russians? I assume it would be accidental, but Russians are at key military sites all over Syria. They’ve very much intertwined with the Syrian military. It’s hard to hit targets where the Russians are not around. It’s possible we would have given the Russians some advance warning. But if we killed uniformed Russian soldiers with any strikes, we could be looking at a very dangerous escalation. And I think that, to me, is probably the most important question of all.
MR. COSTA: Nancy what does that escalation look like from the Russian perspective? How does Putin react if there are strikes?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, it’s interesting. I think what you’ll hear him is – we’ve already started to see it in a way, right? He has said that there wasn’t a chemical attack, that they – at one point the Russians blamed the Brits and everyone under the sun, it seems, other than the Assad regime. It depends on the strikes themselves. If we see strikes that are targeting bases where Russians could be, I think we’ll hear accusations that the U.S. killed Russian forces, whether or not that’s true or not. We’ll hear them blaming the United States for the escalation of violence.
I think we’ll also see an effort to reposition Assad and show that Assad is back in power and hasn’t been affected by these strikes as quickly as possible. Last year, when they hit Shayrat Airfield – when the U.S. hit Shayrat Airfield, that runway was rebuilt in a matter of days. And so I think there’s going to be an effort to blame the United States, to say that the United States is causing instability. And at the same time, show that the Assad regime and his proxies are unaffected by what will be, from the U.S. perspective, a very aggressive assault on the regime.
MR. COSTA: Phil, final thought. This comes amid everything that’s going on with the Russia probe, Michael Cohen. What’s going on inside of this White House? Is the Syria debate and discussion isolated, or is it part of this broader firestorm?
MR. RUCKER: It’s part of a broader firestorm. I mean, to one extent, it’s isolated because it’s a different cast of characters helping make this decision. It’s the military brass, the leadership, Mattis especially. But for Donald Trump, he’s thinking about everything altogether all the time. He’s – you know, when he’s thinking about what to do in Syria, he’s also watching the cable news headlines about the Russia probe, about Michael Cohen, about the Comey book especially. He’s been in a bit of a rage all week.
When we talk to people inside the building, they say they have not seen him this agitated, this frustrated, this angry in a long time. And he doesn’t have the stabilizing forces around him that he used to rely on – people like Hope Hicks, the communications director, who could help soothe his tensions and try to calm him down a little bit. It’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many Twitter outbursts from him. He’s sort of taking to venting publicly instead of to some of his advisors.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. Thanks for everyone here at the table. And thanks to Nancy for joining us. Great webcast. Great show. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.