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.
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 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 also 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.
“When they drop barrel bombs and bombs of any kind right on top of a civilian population, 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. And, in all fairness, you see the same kids — no arms, no legs, no face.”
Trump called Assad “an animal” and “truly an evil person” and said that 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. I thought he was gone. He had another week. I mean he was finished. He had nothing, nothing. 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 chemical attack in Syria earlier this month and was horrified by images and footage of children and babies who were killed by the gas.
“When I looked at the pictures on any show or any newspaper — but especially when you see them on television — and you see these beautiful kids that are dead in their fathers’ arms or you see kids gasping for life and you know they’re — it’s over, it’s over for them. They’re hosing them down, hundreds of them. When you see that, I immediately called General Mattis. I said: What can we do?” Trump said, referring to Secretary of Defense James 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. And some of the gases are unbelievably potent. So, when I saw that, I said: We have to do something.”
Trump’s criticism of President Barack 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: 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.
“You have no idea how many people want to hear the answer to this,” Trump said when Bartiromo asked him how he told Xi. “I will tell you, only because you’ve treated me so good for so long. I have to, right?”
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. “It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean, look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing. Now we’re going to start getting it, because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration and by the war in Iraq, which was another disaster.”
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 the 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 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.”