Hollowness at its core: Donald Trump’s "measured response" misses the mark

Attempts to give logic and coherence to the Trump administration's revised Syrian policy can't hide the truth

By Michael Winship
April 12, 2017 11:59AM (UTC)
main article image
In this April 6, 2017, photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., after the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for this week's gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. Before the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base, Trump accused his predecessor of doing nothing when Syria’s government used chemical weapons against its population in 2013. He’s right that President Barack Obama issued what amounted to an empty threat of military action. The circumstances, though, were more complicated than Trump described. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (AP)

This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

Oh my, Chinese President Xi Jinping and that darned airstrike against Syria sure had all the members in a tizzy last week at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Florida pleasure dome.

Palm Beach Daily News society editor Shannon Donnelly breathlessly reported that for security reasons linked to Jinping’s visit, there was a no-cellphone policy and suspension of the usual prime rib buffet — the horror, the horror!


Donnelly continued, “Later, everybody would realize that the missile launch against Syria had transpired right under our very noses.” Can you just beat that? Luckily, things were soon back to normal for Mar-a-Lago’s privileged:

“Less than 24 hours later, the vibe was completely different. Security was back at its usual level; staff members were more relaxed, and the inside bar was thankfully open and one of the first places POTUS stopped on his traditional dinnertime stroll. He stopped to chat with New England Patriots boss Bob Kraft, who was seated with an exceptionally beautiful (very) young woman named Jocelyn, and both joined POTUS for dinner on the terrace. Also there: Koch brothers, David and Bill and Bill’s wife, Bridget; Ike Perlmutter; Bruce Moskowitz; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who hands down has the best-looking Secret Service squad); Robin and Richard Bernstein; Sidney Kohl and Patricia Lebow.”

I am not making this up. Thank goodness that inside bar reopened and the Sea Breezes could flow again. Crisis averted. And check out that guest list. For those without a scorecard, in addition to Bob Kraft and Jocelyn Who-Has-No-Last-Name-But-Is-Very-Young, the noisome Koch Brothers and Secretary of State Tillerson and his toothsome bodyguards, that fellow Ike Perlmutter is the CEO of Marvel Entertainment who donated a million bucks to Trump’s veterans fundraiser. Bruce Moskowitz is a Trump pal described as “the family physician emeritus of Palm Beach.” During the transition, he arranged a Mar-a-Lago meeting between Trump and health care executives.

Robin and Richard Bernstein own a Palm Beach insurance company. They’re founding members of Mar-a-Lago. She recently rhapsodized about Trump’s presidential time there as “almost a return to Camelot” and is believed to be his choice to be the next ambassador to the Dominican Republic.


Finally, Sidney Kohl is a commercial realty executive and chair of Alliant Capital and Patricia Lebow is a prominent Palm Beach attorney. Each has made contributions to many Democratic candidates, so one has to wonder how they manage to pass muster with Trump’s besotted true believers. Oh, right: Money talks.

That Trump seems to spend most of his weekends at one of his properties or another, generating profit and publicity, is bad enough. That he chose one of these venues of luxury as the launch pad for a decision as important as lobbing Tomahawk missiles at one of the world’s critical hot spots seems somehow tawdry. (And remember, each of those cruise missiles costs around $1.5 million, or seven and half annual club memberships at Mar-a-Lago.)

There’s no question that the fatal chemical weapon attack in northwest Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun was an abhorrent act of war; the photos of dead children were a shock to the world and clearly a large part of Trump’s motivation to retaliate against the Syrian government with a missile attack on its Shayrat airfield.


And yet, as Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-MA) said last week, “President Assad’s vicious brutality demands a response. But… any strategy that ignores the refugees fleeing this unimaginable terror is a half-step at best.” That on the one hand Donald Trump attacks an airbase because he was appalled by images of dead children but on the other deliberately keeps desperate Syrian families out of the United States is grossly hypocritical.

Inadvertently or not, and ineffective as many reports seem to indicate our missiles were — more photo op than strategic offensive — what Trump ordered can be construed as a moral act but in the manner of someone who blunders into a darkened room and accidentally stops a crime from taking place.


And after his immediate visceral response to the Khan Sheikhoun atrocity, what were his intentions, really? Was he once again trying to prove (perhaps only in his own mind) that he was more decisive and tough than Barack Obama? In the wake of Russian election interference and investigations of possible collusion between Russian intelligence and Trump associates, was he trying to prove that he could be defiant in the face of Russia’s alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, that he was in no way beholden to Vladimir Putin and instead ready to face him down?

Or was this response to one more tragedy in Syria simply another attempt to distract us from all his other troubles — just as the whole contretemps over Obama national security adviser Susan Rice doing her job and seeking names connected to the Russia/Trump probe is one more try at drawing our attention from the very real FBI and congressional investigations?

Does Trump also seek an international sleight-of-hand to keep us from being reminded time and again of his backstabbing staff, the legislative failure of health care, the botched travel ban, the inability to fill hundreds of positions of responsibility in government? (The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and Trump’s grim early success gutting regulations and citizen protections are exceptions to his administration’s overwhelming maladroitness.)


Defense Secretary Mattis and others in government described the missile attack on Syria as “a measured response,” and now have gone against previously stated policy and initiated moves against Russia and Syria in an attempt, they say, to remove Assad once and for all. They accuse Russia of participating with the Syrian regime in a cover-up of the chemical attack.

But their hastily-thrown-together new strategy, seemingly designed to give Trump’s Tomahawk launch decision more gravitas and logic than it deserves, reminded me of last week’s brief press conference with Trump and visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II. Abdullah, with Syria as his neighbor and the refugee situation in his country at high boil, was poised and articulate. Trump, publicly reacting to the gas attack for the first time was only somewhat coherent as he tried to verbalize his outrage. And yet, in the wake of his remarks, network analysts and commentators tried to weave his disjointed ramblings into rational thought.

We have a chief executive who orders a lethal missile strike as impulsively as he fires off an early morning tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger. In truth, what the attack on that military base seems to reiterate most is the fatuousness of the Trump presidency, as frivolous and airheaded as Palm Beach gossip.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

MORE FROM Michael Winship

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bashar Al-assad Billmoyers.com Chemical Weapons Donald Trump Russia Syria Vladimir Putin