President Trump's Syria policy raises concerns

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," April 6, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't want to say what I'm going to be doing with respect to Syria. I think what Assad did was terrible. I think what happened in Syria was one of the truly egregious crimes, and it shouldn't have happened. And it shouldn't be allowed to happen. I guess he is running things.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: The audio is not great on Air Force One, but there you hear President Trump talking about his decision-making process. He is not going to tell us what that is yet, but he is concerned about Syria, and we are told he is considering military action against Syria after this chemical weapons attack. We can tell you that two U.S. Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles are now within range, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, they have a ranch about 1,000 miles with these Tomahawk cruise missiles, targets possibly being the Syrian air force and other specific targets about fueling.

What about all of this and where we stand? First I want to play the secretary of state talking about regime change, Rex Tillerson.


SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: There is no doubt in our minds, and the information we have supports that Syria, the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad are responsible for this attack. It is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support of the Assad regime. Assad's role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.


BAIER: Let's bring in our panel: Steve Hayes, editor in chief of The Weekly Standard; Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist; Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Mara?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Well, I mean, my head is spinning. This is a complete 360-degree change from his policy on Syria which, even though a lot of Trump's foreign policy had not been fleshed out, on Syria he had been clear year after year. This is not our fight. He criticized President Obama not just for erasing the red line for considering intervention at all. And now all of a sudden we're talking about military action and he's putting himself in the same box that Obama did. He doesn't like what Assad is doing, but does he want to get rid of him? Is that what he's planning military action for? Does that mean U.S. troops on the ground, something he said he wouldn't do? What happens after --

BAIER: There are U.S. troops on the ground.

LIASSON: There are. Does he mean more U.S. troops if he is really talking about regime change? We're not quite sure what the president was talking about, but we know he was moved by those pictures. He said he changed his mind. Now what is he going to do about it?

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: The whipsaw here is quite remarkable because it was only a few days ago that he said through his spokesman at the U.N. and also his secretary of state that we would not be continuing the Obama approach of wanting regime change. The official policy was, and it was just a few days ago, that the United States no longer is seeking the ouster of the regime. And now we have, as an emotional response --

BAIER: Let me interrupt you. That was before a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

KRAUTHAMMER: I understand. But if you're going to announce a policy and then you revoke it three days later because of the president's emotional reaction to pictures -- remember, Assad has been killing people for seven years. The other thing is that, in Iraq, Saddam had conducted campaigns of Sarin gas attacks, killing thousands of Kurds, and Trump has proudly announced that he was always against the war. If this is a casus belli, this is a reason for us to go to war, then why didn't it apply in Iraq and why didn't it apply years ago when Obama was in power?

I'm not saying this was a mistake. I'm just saying that when a superpower changes its policy radically because a president is moved by pictures, you've got to wonder about the stability of the foreign policy.

BAIER: I think the world, Mollie, has been moved by pictures of chemical attacks in Syria. So does that change the equation, and what to think of this development?

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, THE FEDERALIST: Everyone is moved by the pictures, and there's a humanitarian crisis. It's not the only one in the world, but it is true that Donald Trump has been very successful by always arguing for a foreign policy based on national interest. The presence of chemical weapons does have a national interest role in that there is something good about making sure that people understand that you don't use chemical weapons, that there will be punishment for that even for future engagement with U.S. troops. There also are some other issues of national interesting there, whether it is defeating ISIS or handling the refugee crisis.

At the same time, whether it is full scale war or anything less than that, I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. What does deposing Assad do for us? How does that serve our interests? What does a victory look like? How much are we willing to spend? Are we prepared for how this might further deteriorate the relationship with Russia or are we going to try to work with them? And until these questions are answered, and the go through Congress hopefully for some of these answers, it does seem like a very radical departure and one that doesn't make sense in that so much of the reason why people like Donald Trump was that he showed he was willing to take on a foreign policy establishment that's very keen to invade countries willy-nilly and not have a good plan for victory.

BAIER: There is the other side where he is possibly moving on the red line that President Obama never did.

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: We should spend a moment here just to reflect on the fact that what we are facing now is because of a catastrophic policy failure by Barack Obama. This is something that the Obama administration is responsible for it largely. They turned a blind eye to this for years. And not only that, they sold the American people on the notion that they had prosecuted a successful policy in Syria. Susan Rice said to NPR just in January that the Obama administration had compelled Syria to, quote, "voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile." Now, granted, that is Susan Rice and we probably shouldn't take it very seriously, but that's the case they were making.

The problem here is there is no easy answer. There is no good solution. The moral case is overwhelming, the national security case is very persuasive. But there are huge reasons to be cautious here. The strongest group on the ground by far in Syria today are the jihadis. There's no question about that. If you look at the towns they've taken, you look at Raqqa, taken by jihadis. Look at Idlib, taking by the jihadis. You look at Deraa, taken by the jihadis. The moderate rebels that we might have supported at the very beginning of this really don't exist in any significant, supportable way. So it is wise to be cautious about this.

BAIER: This is a clearly a departure from Trump the candidate on foreign policy. Here is -- here are, rather, three senators who are on the other side of this issue saying there should be some action.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: I believe the president can act without the permission of Congress if he chooses to launch strikes into Syria. President Trump with the team he has around him will make the right decisions.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: President Trump has to make a decision that's going to define his presidency one way or the other. If he acts decisively and responsibly, he can set the Mideast. He can get North Korea's attention, Russia's attention, and Iran's attention.

SEN. TOM COTTON, R-ARIZ.: We should work with our allies where we can, but we have to work alone if we must. Bashar al-Assad has to go. I don't think the United States can be safe from the threats emanating from Syria from Assad in power.


BAIER: Now, Trump supporters, Charles, in the campaign would say these are neocons, these are people that want to get us into war. This is not where the country should be. But now it appears that the administration is heading down that road. It appears that way.

KRAUTHAMMER: I think the most logical thing to do is where you heard from Jack Keane on your show earlier. A single strike using Tomahawks so we're not going to get POWs shot down over Syrian territory. That sends a message, wipes out, at least for a time, the capacity of Assad to put aircraft in the air and to service them and to have runways that are working as a way to send a message that we are trying to enforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

To announce it or to insinuate that it is the beginning of a campaign to bring the regime down, I think, is a mistake. I think the biggest mistake was announcing a week ago that we were no longer interested in changing the regime. Why did we have to say anything? I think that simply invited this kind of arrogant aggression on the part of Assad in the same way in 1950 our secretary of state said that South Korea was outside the zone of protection of the United States, and we got an invasion shortly afterwards. So the less you say, the more you do.

BAIER: Less is more from the Oval Office. Quickly, I want to talk about this meeting, which is huge tomorrow, with the Chinese president in Mar-a- Lago.

LIASSON: Huge. And I think President Trump comes into the meeting with less time and less effort to figure out what exactly he wants. Xi, I'm sure, is always very scripted and choreographed, knows exactly what he wants. And don't forget, Xi accomplished a great victory when he had Tillerson over there repeating Chinese talking points, not once, but twice, which gave the impression that the U.S. was ready to give China a sphere of influence in Asia. Does Donald Trump want to correct that impression or not?

BAIER: President Xi is, Mollie, said to be bringing goodies, if you will, tweetable amounts of money and jobs in America to make the case that China is really going to work on the trade issue. But when it comes to North Korea, it does not seem like there's a lot of bulge.

HEMINGWAY: And that is the area where the most budget needs to happen, and it will be interesting to see how compelling Donald Trump can be making his case that this is their regional problem where they need to apply more pressure. It is a very important issue and one that is not being paid enough attention to, so hopefully some work will get done.

HAYES: If you listen to the White House, they will say privately that they believe the president is going to bring up sanctions on South Korea that the Chinese have undertaken, to challenge them on that. It would be a positive development if they did it.

KRAUTHAMMER: One side effect of attacking facilities in Syria would be to make a credible a threat by the U.S. to the Chinese that we might have to do the same thing if the North Koreans developed a missile that could hit the United States. Right now, the idea of any U.S. attack is not a credible one. I think if we respond in Syria it might become one.

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