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Trump Faces First Foreign Policy Challenge After Syrian Chemical Attack


This week, Donald Trump is facing his first big foreign policy challenge as president. The question is how to respond to a suspected chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by forces of the Bashar al-Assad government. More than 70 people died in the attack. Many of them were children.

In a press conference with Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday following an Oval Office meeting, President Trump called this attack a terrible affront to humanity, saying the images of suffering he had seen had changed his attitude towards Syria and Assad. It is now my responsibility, the president said. Trump did not offer details on any policy changes. He made that clear to reporters.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm not saying I'm doing anything, one way or the other. But I'm certainly not going to be telling you.

GREENE: We're joined now by NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico, good morning.


Good morning, David.

GREENE: So Trump had long been critical of President Obama's handling of the war on Syria. I mean, he's not telling us what he's going to do. But, I mean, is he really facing the same frustration that President Obama did, few, if any, options?

MONTANARO: Well, it's easy to be critical when you're out of power and campaigning. It's a lot harder when you're actually governing. And, as he says, now it's his responsibility. He - the big question here is, what does he learn from Obama's presidency?

Obama was criticized for being somebody who was maybe too cautious when it came to Syria. But the lesson Obama had learned was from George W. Bush, to say that if you don't have a big, multilateral group of major countries involved in a country to nation-build, then it's a fool's errand. So what does Trump take away from this because the options for him in Syria and any president, frankly, are bad and worse?

GREENE: Well, let's talk about one person who may or may not be advising the president when it comes to foreign policy and national security. Steve Bannon - you know, powerful figure in the alt-right movement, a White House adviser, was on the National Security Council. In the beginning, a lot of people made a big deal out of this. We get news yesterday that he is no longer on the National Security Council. The White House is downplaying this. A big deal?

MONTANARO: Well, look, any White House, whenever there's a kind of staff shake-up or change, is going to try to put a spin and shine on this. But there's no way around it. Bannon certainly has somewhat of a diminished influence, not being on the National Security Council's Principles Committee.

You know, Trump gave his national security adviser, Henry (ph) McMaster, some ability to choose his own staff. That was a requirement that McMaster had coming in. He didn't get everything he wanted. But this was certainly, in some respects, normalizes the National Security Council back to something more traditional. But Trump is the person who makes the final decisions here. I wouldn't read too much into Bannon going up, Bannon going down, McMaster one way or the other.

GREENE: Let's go up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Hill. There's this big vote today on Neil Gorsuch, Supreme Court nominee for Donald Trump. Democrats are going to try and filibuster. They'll probably succeed. The big question is, will Republicans change the rules of the Senate so a filibuster doesn't matter in a Supreme Court nomination, and Gorsuch gets through? What are the larger implications here that people should be paying attention to?

MONTANARO: Yeah. Why should people care about a filibuster, right?

GREENE: Why should people care (laughter)?

MONTANARO: I mean, the fact is if you were upset that Betsy DeVos or Scott Pruitt got through to be education secretary or EPA secretary, then you should care. You know, there's a long list of grievances for why we got to this point, for Democrats and Republicans - Republicans upset about someone like Robert Bork kept off the court or Miguel Estrada kept off federal lower courts and Democrats upset about the overuse of the filibuster by Republicans, which we've seen over the past decade.

And this is something, though, that Americans need to look in the mirror. This is a two-way mirror. As soon as I start seeing signs that say, bring back the filibuster and let's all come together, then I'll tell you how the filibuster could come back. But the fact of the matter is, that's unlikely. People have moved in opposite directions. The polarity has become quite high, and the Senate is reflecting what the American people's attitudes are.

GREENE: OK. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, thanks as always for coming in.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.