The Note: The Split on Syria Strategy


Day No. 81

THE BIG STORY: Can he stay or should he go? The split between top Trump administration officials on the question of whether regime change is the policy of the United States in Syria is just one of the internal Trump administration disagreements dominating the aftermath of last week’s attack. Put U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the Assad-must-go camp: “We’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people.” Cue Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “We have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change,” he said on ABC News’ “This Week.” There’s another, even more consequential split making itself evident – one between President Trump and, evidently, just about everyone in the top positions of his administration. That would have to do with Russia, where Tillerson is visiting this week, and of which he’s made clear “some level of responsibility” resides for Assad’s chemical weapons attack. Policies are lagging behind actions here, but they can’t stay there for long.

THE SLEEPER STORY: Welcome home, members of Congress. Since the last time you spent some quality time back in your districts, the legislative agenda fell apart, the president started threatening primary challenges against members of his own party, the Senate went nuclear and President Trump ordered major military force for the first time. Add that to special House elections this week in Kansas and next week in Georgia, and a real sense of politics in the Trump era is about to emerge. Trump has scrambled what it means to be a Republican, and Democrats are adjusting their party to respond to Trump. The feedback and storylines digested by members of both parties in this stretch could define the contours of Trump’s political sway from here.

THE SHINY STORY: “Work this out,” President Trump demanded of chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus late last week, while he was deliberating his response to Syria. “This” almost needs no explanation, since the infighting and staff drama have become embedded in basic understanding of the Trump era. His admonishment notwithstanding, the president seems to thrive on the existence of rival camps inside his White House. Staff shakeups and stern warnings will stand on their own so long as the president himself keeps that atmosphere alive. Complicating it all? The still-growing roles of the president’s daughter and son-in-law, creating a power center whose principals cannot be fired. If Trump truly wanted to quiet the churn beneath the surface, he would have his ways. Bannon and Priebus can only do so much on their own.

TLDR: In an example of White House infighting, Trump administration officials are sending mixed signals on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should remain in power in the wake of last week’s attack on Syrian civilians and U.S. airstrikes in Syria.

PHOTO OF THE DAY: In the most recent episode of “Saturday Night Live,” Alec Baldwin doubled as President Trump and embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “The subject of tonight’s talking points memo is the scandal everyone’s been talking about all week – a scandal no one thought I’d have the guts to address head-on – but the shocking allegations of abuse of power that have been leveled against the Obama administration,” Baldwin, playing O’Reilly, said. In the skit, Baldwin as Trump, came to O’Reilly’s defense, something the real Donald Trump did in a New York Times interview last week. (NBC)


–AFTER SYRIA STRIKES, TRUMP OFFICIALS SEEM TO SEND MIXED SIGNALS ON ASSAD: In the wake of President Trump’s ordering missile strikes against a Syrian air base, senior U.S. officials appear to be sending mixed signals on the administration’s stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that there was “no change” in the U.S. military posture toward Syria despite the Thursday airstrike against a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack days earlier that killed at least 87 civilians, reports ABC’s ERIN DOOLEY.

–EGYPT DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY; ISIS ATTACKS KILLED SCORES OF PALM SUNDAY CHURCHGOERS: Egypt is declaring a state of emergency following twin bomb blasts in churches that were packed for Palm Sunday services, ABC’s MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN reports. The state of emergency will last for three months, according to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The attacks, which were claimed by ISIS, follow warnings by the terrorist group that it would escalate attacks on Egypt’s Christians, who the CIA estimates make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. The two bombings Sunday killed at least 44 people and injured at least 126 others, according to Egyptian officials.

–OFFICIALS: TRUMP DEMANDS FEUDING AIDES ‘WORK THIS OUT:’ Just as President Trump was convening a consequential summit with China and deliberating on U.S. strikes against Syria, he directly intervened in an escalating feud between two of his closest aides, demanding that they “work this out,” several administration sources tell ABC News. Trump confronted chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus on Thursday, after repeated negative headlines regarding infighting between Bannon and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner enflamed the president’s frustration, a senior administration official said. Bannon and Kushner had been allies during the campaign but their relationship has soured over a growing ideological divide, sources say. Bannon’s signature nationalist views have at times clashed with the globalist inclinations of Kushner, who has also previously identified as a Democrat. ABC’s JOHN SANTUCCI, KATHERINE FAULDERS, ALEXANDER MALLIN, JONATHAN KARL and DEVIN DWYER have more:


DESPITE TRUMP CAMPAIGN PROMISE, TILLERSON HAD ‘NO CONVERSATION’ WITH MEXICO PAYING FOR BORDER WALL. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he had “no conversation” with his Mexican counterpart about whether Mexico will pay for a border wall between the two countries. President Trump promised repeatedly in his election campaign that he would build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border which Mexico would pay for, writes ABC’s NICKI ROSSOLL. But Tillerson said in an interview Sunday on “This Week” that the subject didn’t come up last week in his meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray at the U.S. State Department.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: ‘NO CHANGE’ TO US MILITARY POSITION ON SYRIA AFTER STRIKE. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. position on Syria hasn’t changed after American warships launched a military strike on an air base in Syria Thursday in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed at least 70 civilians earlier in the week, ABC’s NICKI ROSSOLL notes. “We are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment and we’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture,” Tillerson told ABC’s GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS.

RUBIO SAYS US CAN’T DEFEAT ISIS UNTIL SYRIA’S ASSAD IS REMOVED. Sen. Marco Rubio said he is “concerned” by a Trump administration official’s assertion that there is “no change” in U.S. policy on Syria despite the American airstrike against a Syrian government air base. Rubio, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, responded to earlier comments on the show by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. priority in Syria is to defeat ISIS. “I think that the strategy [Tillerson] seems to be outlining is based on assumptions that aren’t going to work,” said Rubio. ABC’s JOY LIN has more:

SCHIFF SAYS RUSSIA IS ABSOLUTELY ‘COMPLICIT’ IN SYRIAN CHEMICAL ATTACK. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Russia is absolutely “complicit” in the chemical attack in Syria that killed at least 86 civilians, including many children, notes ABC’s MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN. “Absolutely they’re complicit,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California told ABC’s GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS on “This Week” Sunday. “Russian intelligence may not be as good as ours, but it’s good enough to know the Syrians had chemical weapons, were using chemical weapons.”

NSA MCMASTER: ‘PRUDENT’ TO SEND STRIKE GROUP TO KOREAN PENINSULA. White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Sunday characterized the decision to relocate a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the Sea of Japan as “prudent,” given North Korea’s “pattern of provocative behavior.” “Well, it’s prudent to do it, isn’t it?” McMaster told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that “the president has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.” ABC’s LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN has more:

KT MCFARLAND TO DEPART AS DEPUTY NSA, TAKE AMBASSADORSHIP TO SINGAPORE. Deputy national security adviser KT McFarland is expected to leave her position and accept an ambassadorship to Singapore, a senior administration official confirms to ABC News. The move is the latest indication that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is taking full control over the National Security Council, following up on last week’s decision to remove Steve Bannon from the principals committee, notes ABC’s ALEXANDER MALLIN.


HOW NEIL GORSUCH COULD AFFECT THE SUPREME COURT. Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s pick to fill the Supreme Court slot left open following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, was confirmed by the Senate after a bruising fight when the upper chamber’s majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, invoked the so-called “nuclear option,” which allowed Republicans to end debate without 60 votes and subsequently push through the nomination, ABC’s BENJAMIN BELL writes. To help understand why the addition of Gorsuch, a judicial conservative ideologically similar to Scalia, to the nation’s highest court matters, we reached out to Kate Shaw, an ABC News contributor and a Cardozo School of Law professor.


NEW AFP AD CALLING ON CONGRESS TO DITCH BAT CONSUMER TAX. “America voted for change, economic growth and to stop wasteful spending. But now some members of Congress want a new trillion dollar BAT consumer tax that could drive up your costs and hurt our economy…tell Congress that’s not the change we’re asking for,” the new Americans for Prosperity ad launched today says. The six-figure ad will run nationwide on cable news. “We are encouraged by Congress and the administration’s commitment to advancing tax reform this year…but continued discussion in the House of a 20-percent import tax is threatening the success of these efforts.” Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips said in a statement. WATCH:


@Phil_Mattingly: “It is unproductive adjudicating internal discussions through the media.” Must-read @ShaneGoldmacher here:

@kenvogel: SCOOP: Trump has friendly Mar-a-Lago chat with David & Bill Koch. Still no thaw with most influential Koch (Charles)

@NorahODonnell: .@CBSNews poll out this morning shows 57% of Americans approve of last week’s missile strike in Syria, 36% disapprove @CBSThisMorning

@mikedebonis: New: Seven House Republicans targeted with TV ad attacks by pro-ACA liberal health care group.

@429Magazine: California politician @AdamSchiffCA is taking on Trump in a big way: Read @mglord666 on Schiff in our new issue:

@SteveKingIA: @RealDonaldTrump Steve Bannon is the lynchpin to your energized base. Conservatives are an endangered species in your White House.