Trump warns of 'big price' for backing Assad

Another reported chemical weapons attack may pull President Donald Trump back into Syria's civil war days after he said he wanted to withdraw US troops. CNN's Abby Phillip reports on his reaction.

Posted: Apr 10, 2018 5:57 AM
Updated: Apr 10, 2018 6:00 AM

Donald Trump always strives to command center stage, but the pugilistic American President is now embroiled in so many escalating global and domestic tests of will, it's becoming impossible to keep count.

Unrestrained and lashing out at enemies at home and abroad, Trump is increasingly exporting the turbulence that has exhausted Washington.

Yet another pivotal week for the Trump presidency opens on Monday with top officials gathering under the direction of new national security adviser John Bolton to discuss how to respond to a chemical weapons attack in Syria with the world on edge over a potential strike.

The assault on civilians, already blamed by Trump on Bashar al-Assad, is raising the prospect of new US military action, since the Syrian President was clearly not deterred by American missile strikes after a similar attack last year. Heightening tensions, Syrian state television reported a missile strike on an airbase Sunday night, which it said was likely from the US. The Pentagon, however, denied responsibility, and Russia's Defense Ministry has since claimed that Israel was behind the strikes.

On Sunday, Trump's belligerent form of statesmanship took an unexpected turn as he almost unprecedentedly singled out President Vladimir Putin for blame over the chemical weapons attack in a potentially fateful moment for America's fast worsening relations with nuclear rival Russia.

Trump is meanwhile driving America to the precipice of a full-on trade war with China, apparently racing out well ahead of his top economic advisers and setting up a very public confrontation with China's strongman leader Xi Jinping.

There's no respite for the crisis-battered White House at home. Trump's pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is expected to endure a bruising confirmation hearing Thursday, with Democrats out for blood.

Trump's dispatch of the National Guard last week to the southwest border to respond to what critics see as a nonexistent crisis further polarized a Washington immigration showdown that is likely to worsen in the days ahead.

And the constant churn of staff departures and internal administration discord claimed another victim on Sunday night, as National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton left, just before Bolton takes the reins.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is still hanging by a thread after a dizzying sequence of scandals, although the President can change on a dime, so there's no guarantee he'll be in the job by week's end.

The Russia cloud that has loomed over Trump every day since he took office is also likely to thicken this week. An appearance Tuesday on Capitol Hill by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is likely to revive scrutiny in Russian election meddling that is all but guaranteed to make the President fume.

As ever, there's the potential for further damaging revelations related to the special counsel probe of Robert Mueller.

CNN reported exclusively Friday that Trump has begun informal prep work for a potential interview with Mueller that his legal team opposes but would represent another test of wills between the President and an adversary.

And Trump is almost certain to be gearing up by the end of the week to renew his public feud with James Comey, as the fired FBI chief is breaking his seclusion before the publication of his tell-all memoir on April 17 with an interview on ABC two days before.

In the short term however, the showdowns over Syria and China that are likely to prove especially vexing for Trump.

The President vented his disgust in a tweet on Sunday over an attack on civilians that reportedly killed at least 48 people.

"Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world," Trump wrote, vowing there would be a "big price" to be paid for the attack.

Trump's international credibility and willingness to enforce his red lines will be in question if the attack can be definitively linked to Assad's forces.

But to be more effective than before, US action would presumably need to be more robust. That would risk drawing Washington deeper into the war and seriously worsening tensions with Assad's backers Russia and Iran.

Any action in Syria against Assad would also highlight the contradictions in Trump's impulses regarding the country's brutal civil war. Less than two weeks ago the President said he wanted to get troops out of Syria "real soon."

Republican Sen. John McCain said that Trump's equivocation over Syria may have helped spur the chemical attack.

"Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him, and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children, this time in Douma," McCain said in a statement.

If the President does take military action, he may draw substantial support in Congress.

"Last time this happened, the President did a targeted attack to take out some of the facilities. That may be an option that we should consider now," Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

The top Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi, said that if Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack it would be a "war crime of staggering inhumanity." But she also took a shot at Trump: "The Trump administration must finally provide a smart, strong and consistent strategy in Syria," Pelosi said in a statement.

While Trump contemplates sending American forces into harm's way in Syria, he is also acting as a general in a different kind of war, over trade with China.

Last week, Trump consciously stepped up the showdown, threatening another $100 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods to punish intellectual property theft injecting new volatility into global stock markets and setting up possible retaliation from Beijing.

Trump's decision to heighten the confrontation in such a public way has effectively put his own credibility on the line in the dispute -- even as he insists that it is not personal with China's leader.

"President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade. China will take down its Trade Barriers because it is the right thing to do," Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Despite his confidence, however, any resolution looks a long way off, raising the political stakes, since in its retaliatory moves, Beijing is directly targeting the Trump coalition hitting agricultural goods sectors like soybeans and pork -- that support thousands of jobs in states that the President won in 2016.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed nearly 600 points on Friday further threatening the Trump era bull run that the President often touts as proof that his economic policies are working.

Trump's new top economic adviser Larry Kudlow is continuing to try to dampen global investor concerns over the looming trade war, suggesting that the tariffs may never go into effect, even as the President ratchets up the pressure.

"He is pretty good at negotiating, but he is also pretty good at standing his ground," Kudlow said, explaining Trump's tactics.

But the truth is, in the China duel, as in the Middle East, or with Russia, or in the endless battles raging in Washington at the President's instigation, no one can really predict how any of this ends.

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