Donald Trump's airstrike on al-Shayrat military airfield in Syria was met with a heavy dose of skepticism in MSNBC's newsroom. Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel called the strike the "least amount (Trump) could do that has a complete narrative," while Chris Matthews speculated that the strike was designed to "kill the narrative that he's in bed with Putin."
Following a period of chaos and uncertainty, Donald Trump ordered an airstrike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on al-Shayrat military airfield in Syria, in response to the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib. The Pentagon has confirmed that Russian forces in the area were warned of the strike ahead of time.
As details of the strike were still unfolding, MSNBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel delivered a clear-eyed and skeptical assessment of the strike, which focused on a single airbase, from which the chemical attacks were allegedly launched. Engel called the attack a "slap on the wrist" and added that concern over "narrative" colored the response:
But what [Trump] did, it seems, he picked the least amount he could do that has a complete narrative. Hit the base where the attack was launched, and leave it at that.
MSNBC anchor Brian William broached the subject of optics with Hardball host Chris Matthews, who took a far more cynical approach to the subject, speculating that the strike may have been designed to quell the domestic political problems that Russia presents to Trump as questions emerge about Trump's possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election:
WILLIAMS: The optics of everything vis-a-vis Russia? How soon until we read someone saying obviously we didn't mind taking a swing at that bee's nest, that no fix was in prior to this?
MATTHEWS: That's what I was thinking all day because I think like that, and maybe it's cynicism. But I thought if there was a way for him to kill the narrative that he's in bed with Putin, it would be this. Take on Putin's fresh water port, take on his ally, his satellite, his loyal ally Assad. That would be a way of saying, "I never was in bed with these guys. I never planned any kind of coalition with this guy in Moscow." You're right, I was thinking of it. Who knows? We'll find out. It certainly isn't going to go well with Putin, unless we find out they had a phone call this afternoon and worked this thing out, and it was a set piece that was not meant to be particularly antagonistic to Moscow.
Williams: A bunch of cynics in the political business, right?
Of course, given the evidence of back-channels to Russia, we might never see an official read out on a call between the United States and Russia about the planned airstrike.
Accusations of using foreign military action to solve domestic political problems are a well-worn political trope, one that was even employed against President Obama by a prominent critic in 2012:
Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2012
In 2013, Trump also issued a bit of advice to then-President Obama, who was preparing to ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria in response to chemical attacks:
The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2013
As president, Trump ignored his own advice and launched the cruise missile strike without seeking authorization from Congress. Time will tell if Republicans will stand with Democrats to demand a say in any future military action against Syria, as they demanded of President Obama — and as the Constitution says they must.
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