WASHINGTON ― The White House on Monday insisted that President Donald Trump is still pursuing an “America first” foreign policy after ordering missile strikes on a Syrian airfield where the U.S. believes a chemical weapons attack against civilians originated.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on Thursday night was a necessary measure to protect Americans.
“I think if you recognize the threat that our country and our people face if there is a growth of use or spread of chemical weapons of mass destruction,” Spicer said, “[then] the proliferation of those, the spread to other groups, is a clear danger to our country and to our people.”
Spicer’s definition of a national security threat is broader than Trump outlined during his presidential campaign. Trump frequently extolled non-interventionist foreign policy, and a belief that Syria should be left alone to resolve its six-year civil war.
But a chemical weapons attack on civilians early last week, carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, appears to have altered Trump’s perspective.
“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer explained.
This statement appeared to convey a new “red line” for the Trump administration, namely that any future use of chemical weapons, or of barrel bombs, will elicit further U.S. retaliation.
Yet moments after his “if you gas a baby...” line, Spicer seemed to contradict himself, saying the president refuses to “telegraph a response to every corresponding action, because that just tells the opposition or the enemy what you’re gonna do, and whether or not that response is worth taking.
“The president’s gonna be very clear that he’s gonna keep his cards close to the vest,” Spicer said. “But make no mistake: He will act.”
The Huffington Post reached out to the White House in an attempt to clarify Spicer’s remarks. According to a senior official who asked not to be named, “nothing has changed in [Trump’s] posture.”
“The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens,” the official said. “And as the president has repeatedly made clear, he will not be telegraphing his military responses.”
This article has been updated to include the comments of a senior White House official.