On April 4, Syrian forces engaged in a chemical warfare attack and in doing so instigated the first international crisis in the Trump Presidency. This was the litmus test for Trump. His naysayers were terrified that he would not be able to acquit himself well in a crisis. Any other politician would approach the atrocity with a considered response, but no one was really sure how Trump would react. His own advisors didn’t know if he was an isolationist or a militarist or if he even understood the difference. He loved the pageantry of authority figures but hated when expertise or authority was applied to him. He knew nothing of foreign policy and despised anyone with more expertise than himself. He resented feeling like he was being spoken down to.
Dina Powell, a staff member to the President, was someone who dominated the corporate world and had gain respect with her work in the Bush presidency. She saw herself as the adult in the room. Others thought she had made a grave mistake. She also highlighted a schism in the Trump administration. Some people were there because they were attached somehow to Trump. Think Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Others were there to try and restrain the potential damage. Think Dina Powell. These people brought professional experience that they hoped would eventually bring the situation back to a normal level insanity. That said, it was a gamble and a trade-off. How much stability could be brought and how much damage to a person’s reputation could be suffered for it?
Ivanka Trump, who everyone thought would provide some stability to her father was in an even more severe situation. She was tied to him by name and blood. She was alarmed by the direction the administration was going in, but at the same time, she had no way of bailing out. Dina Powell and Gary Cohn were investigating behind-the-scenes on the best way to get out (into a high-paying job, of course), but Ivanka Trump had to go down with the ship.
With this in mind, Ivanka Trump and Dina Powell teamed up. Powell would give tips on management tactics to handle Ivanka’s father and Ivanka would provide regular assurances that Donald Trump was not a lunatic. Between the two of them, a plan was hatched to control what was presented to Donald Trump.
Essentially, Trump didn’t like formal information. He was proud of not going to class and if he felt he was being lectured he would just leave. This was a problem for the generals. Trump liked how they looked, but he didn’t like how they spoke to him and he wouldn’t spend time on their reports. The only one to get past this was the ill-fated Michael Flynn who was into conspiracy theories, being a drama queen and was a colorful storyteller.
This was why Trump was planning to fire H.R. McMaster. McMaster’s job was to deliver options and information to Trump about Syria, but his reports and Powerpoint presentations just drove Trump away from him. “That guy bores the shit out of me”, Trump would say on one occasion. He only really felt comfortable hiring McMaster after seeing an interview on the show Morning Joe.
The staff members involved with national security saw an opportunity for a moral statement when it came to addressing Syria. Steve Bannon was openly promoting doing nothing. Addressing the Syrian attack was against his isolationist instincts and he saw little difference between this and everything that resulted in the most recent Iraq War. Trump was agreeing with this. Bannon’s hard-line sense of isolationism appealed to Trump; after all, it wasn’t America’s mess to begin with. He also was developing the idea that a good foreign policy was to placate the despots in the world that could be problematic to the US. If no move had to be made, why make it. Why cross people who didn’t need to be crossed? It’s also notable that the Syrian attack was committed by Bashar Al-Assad, who was also Russian-backed.
This added urgency to get Bannon off of the National Security Council, which actually happened the day after the attack. It was a win for the moderate side of Trump’s administration. Not that any of this helped. Jared Kushner was complaining that Trump didn’t understand the situation and was clearly becoming annoyed at having to think about the attack at all. Ivanka and Dina Powell finally came up with a plan to turn Trump around. The attack on Syria had result in a treasure trove of images of suffering children. They made sure Trump saw those images. The effect was immediate and profound. He watched the presentation they made for him several times. He got it. There had to be a response.
H.R. McMaster nearly ruined it. Once Donald Trump was interested in military options, McMaster came in with his lectures and presentations and Trump instantly became frustrated. Eventually a decision was made to engage a cruise missile strike on one of Assad’s airfields. At Mar-a-Lago, during dinner with President Xi Jinping from China, the attack was announced. Bannon, who had been sidelined to a distant corner of the table was disgusted by the pageantry of the announcement. He thought it was all phony and pointless. Trump’s national security staff, however, was relieved. They had actually found a way to get him to act reasonably.