US 'intensifies preparations' for Syria response
President Donald Trump intensified preparations for a US response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, cancelling a planned trip this weekend to South America and conferring with European allies on retaliatory steps.
Mr Trump spoke by phone yesterday with UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Both leaders condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's "vicious disregard for human life" and "agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue," the White House said in an emailed statement on the call.
The US president spoke twice this week with French President Emmanuel Macron to co-ordinate a Syria response, said a person familiar with the matter.
Mr Trump hasn't made a final decision on a response, and continues to meet with national security staff on the matter, an administration official said.
Mr Trump said late on Monday that the US will respond "forcefully" to a suspected chemical weapons attack by Assad's regime over the weekend, after suggesting earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin may share responsibility. He would not describe the US response or say when it would come.
"I don't like talking about timing," he said.
The development also comes a day after the FBI raided the office of Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, based on information gathered in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That news caused Mr Trump to lash out at Mr Mueller to reporters late on Monday, describing the FBI raid as a criminal act and an "attack on our country".
Some of Mr Trump's allies encouraged him to respond by firing Mr Mueller, FBI director Christopher Wray or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising Mr Mueller's probe and approved the raid. Mr Trump entertained a question about firing Mr Mueller while speaking with reporters, but did not say whether he was considering the move.
Tensions in the Middle East escalated even higher early on Monday with an airstrike by unknown warplanes against a Syrian airbase. Russia blamed the raid on Israel, which hewed to its customary no-comment policy.
The White House announced yesterday morning that Vice President Mike Pence would travel in Mr Trump's place to the Latin American summit. The administration had already scaled back the trip in recent weeks, and one planned meeting with Peru's president was cancelled after he resigned amid corruption allegations.
"There's a high bar for a president ever cancelling a foreign trip," said Michael Singh, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W Bush and managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Once arrangements for meetings and travel are made, logistics are put in place, money spent and diplomatic negotiations executed. "It's not something you do casually."
At the same time, Mr Singh said past presidents have cancelled or postponed trips to remain in the US to deal with domestic and foreign policy crises. While the president has all the communications and support tools he needs to run a virtual White House from anywhere in the world, Mr Singh said there may be no substitute for being able to sit down in the same room with key advisers.
"There's a symbolic element as well," Mr Singh said. Cancelling the trip allows Mr Trump to show he is personally engaged and takes the stakes seriously. "The US ordering a military strike against another country is pretty serious business," Mr Singh said. The change in travel plans is another indication Mr Trump is leaning toward a military strike, he said.