President Donald Trump was complimenting the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping over steak dinner on Thursday as his military prepared to fire dozens of cruise missiles into Syria.
Shortly after laughing with Xi in the ornate, candle-lit dining room of his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump made a televised address in front of a hastily assembled backdrop to say he had ordered a surprise strike on a Syrian airfield.
It was Trump's most presidential moment so far, the first time he had marshaled the might of the U.S. government instead of looking like an insurgent trying to dismantle it from within. In the hours leading up to the strike, Trump had to depend on the expertise of the intelligence community and military apparatus that he and his aides belittled throughout the campaign and since. Less than three days after Syrian President Bashar Assad prompted the U.S. strike by attacking an insurgent-held town with sarin gas, Trump's relationship with the world was altered.
After evaluating Assad's attack and other recent provocations, Trump "came to the conclusion that we could not yet again turn away and turn a blind eye to what's happened," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday evening.
Thursday morning, as the president prepared to leave for Florida for a meeting with Xi, the White House began notifying some members of Congress that it was considering military action against Syria.
Trump arrived at Mar-a-Lago at about 3:15 p.m. Eastern time. Shortly thereafter, three groups of military and national security officials were gathered and linked via video conference to discuss military options against Syria.
Trump and more than a dozen of his aides crowded into a small, plain room at Mar-a-Lago, where they sat on wedding-reception chairs for a video conference on the Syria strike.
White House photo/Times graphic
In the secure room, the group included Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as well as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who were all traveling with the president for the Xi visit. Back in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence was in the White House situation room, along with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel. A third group of defense officials gathered at the Pentagon.
Mattis, Tillerson, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who joined from New York, laid out the options for Trump, said a person included in the meeting. Trump issued the order to execute the cruise-missile strike at 3:45 p.m., the person said.
About 90 minutes later, the Chinese president and his wife pulled into Mar-a-Lago, where they were greeted by Trump and the first lady. The foursome posed for photos before several hours of meetings.
That evening about 7 p.m., inside a private dining room, the two world leaders dined on New York strip and Dover sole with several dozen Chinese and top White House officials, including Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The club remained open to members and their guests, who dined separately and could catch glimpses of Trump as he walked through the dining area.
Alex Brandon | Associated Press
During dinner, Trump informed Xi personally that he had ordered the strike, the person familiar with the situation said. The Tomahawk missiles were minutes away from their targets as the Chinese motorcade prepared to depart the club. The first missiles struck at about 8:40 p.m.
The decision to launch the strike came shortly after Trump reshuffled his national security team, led by the removal of chief strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council's top committee. Bannon's departure, coupled with the restoration of top intelligence and defense officials to the panel, was seen as a sign of growing influence for McMaster. He, Mattis and Tillerson all advised Trump closely as he decided how to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons.
The strike in Syria suggests Trump may embrace a more interventionist foreign policy than Bannon and his allies have advocated. Trump himself had warned against a military intervention before becoming president. "Syria is NOT our problem," he tweeted in 2013. But in a news conference on Wednesday, he said his approach to Assad had shifted after he saw pictures of children dying from the sarin attack.
"No child of God should ever suffer such horror," Trump told reporters after his strike.
Bannon's allies downplayed the significance of the reshuffling, saying he was only on the NSC panel as a check on Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Following the chemical attack in Syria on Tuesday, the president asked his advisers to collect more information about the circumstances and determine who was responsible, McMaster said. The White House then convened the National Security Council's principals committee - the group from which Bannon was removed - to deliberate options. There were three options discussed, and Trump asked his advisers to explore two of them, McMaster said.
He did not describe any of the options considered.
Ascertaining Assad's culpability required Trump and his advisers to lean on an intelligence community he has periodically demonized. The U.S. military said that it was able to observe Syrian planes leave the Shayrat airfield, drop munitions on the town in Idlib province, and return to the base. Tillerson said there was little doubt of the findings.
"We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out under aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad's regime" he told reporters. "We have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas."
The strike has been widely praised by members of Congress and other world leaders, many of whom are now eager to see if Trump's first real act as commander-in-chief signals a shift in a president long criticized as susceptible to instigation by a tweet.
"He now has an opportunity to reboot with the American people," Senator John McCain said, "at least as far as national security is concerned."
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