President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he wanted to assassinate Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, contradicting his own past denials that he had ever considered killing Assad and weakening his claim to be an anti-war president.
“I would have rather taken him out. I had him all set,” Trump told ”Fox & Friends” in response to a question about Assad. Trump blamed his former defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, for holding him back: “Mattis didn’t want to do it. Mattis was a highly overrated general and I let him go.”
The president is pitching himself as less hawkish than most politicians from both major political parties in his reelection bid, going so far as promoting an anti-immigrant Norwegian politician’s improbable nomination of Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump’s campaign hailed the suggestion with Facebook ads, but misspelled the Nobel prize as Noble.
That nomination ― the second for Trump by the same politician ― was already an absurd long shot, given the president’s brutal policies that have dramatically increased civilian casualties abroad as a result of U.S. operations, and included troop buildups across the Middle East and enthusiasm for shows of force like dropping the so-called mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.
The Assad boast is a reminder that the president’s claimed dovishness is far less consistent than his penchant for impulsive escalations that could have serious and worrying national security consequences ― and make war more likely.
In trying to protect his family’s decades of authoritarian rule after popular uprisings began in Syria in 2011, Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons against his own people and has killed tens of thousands of Syrians by other means.
Trump considered the assassination in April 2017, after the first major Syrian chemical weapons attack of his presidency, journalist Bob Woodward revealed in a book published in 2018. “Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, per Woodward. He ultimately settled on a limited airstrike against Assad’s forces ― the first U.S. intervention of that kind in the Syrian civil war.
Trump denied considering assassinating Assad after Woodward’s book came out, as did aides like then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Now he has undercut his own denial ― while boosting Woodward’s credibility as he defends his new book that says Trump knowingly misled Americans about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and endangered millions of people.
Earlier this year, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a killing that past presidents and American allies had previously considered but judged too risky. His decision exacerbated a downward spiral in U.S.-Iran relations that he triggered by withdrawing from an international agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, prompting the Islamic republic to expand its nuclear work beyond the limits of that deal and to weigh retribution with plans like a plot to kill the U.S. ambassador in South Africa recently revealed by Politico.
Trump ramped up tensions with Iran further on Monday night, tweeting: ”Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”
To the extent that Trump is wary of foreign entanglements, the president has made clear that his view is about what he perceives as priorities rather than concern for global peace or human rights. He began a withdrawal of American forces from Syria last year despite concerns from national security experts about possible devastating consequences for Kurds who helped the U.S. fight the Islamic State ― then reversed course weeks later because he became convinced troops should stay “only for the oil.”
When Fox host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump if he regretted not killing Assad, who has resumed using chemical weapons and widespread torture since the incident that prompted the president’s talk of an assassination, Trump answered: “I don’t regret that. I could have lived either way with that.”
Later on Tuesday, Trump welcomed officials from Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to the White House to formalize relations between the Jewish state and those two Arab nations. Trump and his supporters say those deals represent major progress toward broader peace in the Middle East. The Palestinians ― the main party in conflict with the Israelis ― and most outside analysts reject that claim.