Before the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base, President Donald Trump accused his predecessor of doing nothing when Syria’s government used chemical weapons against its population in 2013. Trump is right that President Barack Obama issued what amounted to an empty threat of military action. The circumstances, though, were more complicated than Trump described.
A look at statements on a selection of subjects over the past week by Trump and lawmakers:
TRUMP: In a White House statement after what the Trump administration said was a bombing involving the nerve agent sarin in a rebel-held part of northern Syria: “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing.”
THE FACTS: Many in the foreign policy establishment essentially agree with Trump. That’s not to say he told the full story.
When evidence emerged in August 2013 of a large-scale chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs, more than 10 times deadlier than this past week’s, Obama quickly signaled his intention to use military force. But when key ally Britain wouldn’t participate, Obama became uncomfortable about going it alone and sought Congress’ authorization. Lawmakers in both parties balked; he could not win enough support.
Indeed, when Obama had made his “red line” threat a year earlier, Trump himself tweeted: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder for another (and more important) day!”
It’s also true, though, that Obama could have ordered a military strike without congressional authorization, as Trump did Thursday. Derek Chollet, Obama’s assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, wrote in Politico last year that he was initially shocked when Obama decided to go to Congress, because “it was clear the president had all the domestic legal authority and international justification he needed to act.”
In the end, Obama turned to diplomacy when Russia offered him a way out. Their deal led the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, to own up to chemical weapons stocks and agreeing to have them removed, steps seen as breakthroughs at the time.
It wasn’t “nothing,” as Trump claimed. But neither it did it remove Syria’s chemical weapons threat. Assad’s forces are believed to have conducted a number of deadly chlorine attacks in the years since, with no international punishment. And as is now apparent, Obama’s deal wasn’t enough to spare Syrian civilians from a sarin-like nerve gas this past week.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, Senate majority leader, on why he opposed Obama’s proposal for U.S. military action against Syria in 2013 but supports what Trump did: “Secretary (of State John) Kerry, I guess in order to reassure the left-leaning members of his own party, said it would sort of be like a pinprick. You know, really would not be of any great consequence. I don’t know whether he had in mind knocking out a tent and a couple of camels or what.” But Trump’s strike “was well-planned, well- executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So, had I seen that – that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.”
THE FACTS: Actually, what McConnell, R-Ky., said at the time was that Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people did not threaten the U.S. “A vital national security risk is clearly not in play,” he said then, responding to a far deadlier attack on civilians than the latest one.
McConnell told the Senate in September 2013 that Obama’s planned action was detached from any strategy to end the Syrian civil war. McConnell said the planned intervention could be too limited to dissuade Assad from further use of chemical weapons – or so broad that it could put those weapons in the hands of extremists, if Assad lost control. His concern not merely, or even principally, that intervention might amount to a “pinprick.”
At the time, McConnell was alone among the top Senate and House leaders from either party in opposing Obama’s proposal. The senator was facing a primary challenge from a Republican who opposed intervening in Syria.
TRUMP, speaking to CEOs at the White House about the nation’s unemployment rate: “We have 100 million people if you look” who want jobs and can’t get them. “You know, the real number’s not 4.6 percent … one of the statistics that, to me, is just ridiculous. … When you look for a job, you can’t find it and you give up. You are now considered statistically employed.”
THE FACTS: He’s wrong about federal jobs data. There’s no category that counts frustrated job-seekers as “statistically employed.”
And there aren’t 100 million of them.
When people give up looking for work, they are categorized as having left the workforce – neither employed nor unemployed.
Trump’s figure of 100 million people uncounted in the unemployment rate is made up largely of high-school and college students, retirees and stay-at-home parents who aren’t looking for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does ask people outside the workforce if they would want a job, even if they aren’t actively seeking one. The bureau found 5.6 million people fit this category in February, a small fraction of what the president claimed.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, Senate Democratic leader, on the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch: “Senator McConnell would have the world believe that his hands are tied. That the only option after Judge Gorsuch doesn’t earn 60 votes is to break the rules, to change the rules. That could not be further from the truth.”
THE FACTS: McConnell was closer to the truth on this matter.
A Senate rules change, requiring only 51 votes to stop a filibuster instead of 60, did appear to be the lone route that Republicans had to put Gorsuch on the court. It was the route they took in winning his confirmation Friday. To Schumer, D-N.Y., Republicans had the option of ditching Gorsuch and coming up with a more “mainstream” nominee. It’s unlikely, however, that any nominee produced by Trump would win Democrats’ approval.
TRUMP, in remarks to CEOs: “There was a very large infrastructure bill that was approved during the Obama administration, a trillion dollars. Nobody ever saw anything being built. I mean, to this day, I haven’t heard of anything that’s been built. They used most of that money – it went and they used it on social programs and we want this to be on infrastructure.”
THE FACTS: The $787 billion package in 2009 was not an infrastructure bill, but a catchall response to the recession with infrastructure as a major part.
More than one-third of it went to tax cuts, not social programs. Medicaid spending and other help for health care made up the next largest component. Then came infrastructure, followed closely by education. The package mixed economic and social spending, helping states train displaced workers, for example, extending jobless benefits and assisting with low-income housing.
As for being unaware that stimulus money built anything, Trump needn’t have traveled far from Trump Tower to see those dollars at work.
In New York City alone, $30 million went toward repairs and repainting of the Brooklyn Bridge; the Staten Island ferry also got a boost. More than $80 million was earmarked for Moynihan Station, an annex to Penn Station that is meant to return the rail hub to the grandeur of the original Penn Station. Road, bridge and transit projects across the country got a lift.
Trump praised Obama and the package’s combination of tax cuts and spending programs when it passed in February 2009.
“I thought he did a terrific job,” Trump said then. “This is a strong guy (who) knows what he wants, and this is what we need.”
TRUMP, on signing executive action that revived the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada: “I was signing the order and I said where’d they buy the steel? I didn’t like the answer. I said who fabricated the steel? I didn’t like the answer. I said, ‘From now on, we’re going to put a clause, got to be made in America.'”
THE FACTS: This is one of Trump’s favorite stories, a mix of fact and fiction that he told with more accuracy in its latest iteration.
This time, he owned up to the fact that he placed no requirement on the TransCanada pipeline company to use U.S. steel: “They had already bought 60, 70 percent of it, so you can’t be too wild, right?” So a mandate for U.S. steel would be for future pipelines, “from now on.”
It’s not quite right, though, to say he’s insisting that steel or pipelines be “made in America” in the future. His directive calls for the use of U.S. content “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law,” leaving lots of wiggle room.
TRUMP, on progress against the Islamic State group: “We had a very, very fine delegation come over from Egypt, and also from Iraq. And they said more has been done in the last six weeks than has been done in years with the previous administration.”
THE FACTS: Far more progress was achieved against IS over the past year than in the past six weeks.
Last year Iraqi military forces, supported by the coalition, waged successful battles to oust IS from Fallujah, Ramadi, eastern Mosul and a number of smaller towns along the Tigris River. They also established logistical hubs for the push that began in February to retake western Mosul, which is expected to be the last major battle against IS in Iraq. No major cities have been taken in the past six weeks.
As for Syria, Trump was correct in suggesting that there has been significant progress against IS in recent weeks, as the U.S. deployed hundreds more troops to help prepare local forces to retake Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the militants’ de facto capital.