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ZZZZ

White House Threatened Syria While Trump Yawned, Insiders Say

Tillerson secretly warned the Russians, and Kushner and Bannon were consulted before the White House rattled its saber. But the commander-in-chief was consumed with ‘fake news.’

Hours before the White House issued an ominous warning to Syria’s dictator against launching another chemical assault, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the same message to Bashar Assad’s patron in Moscow, The Daily Beast has learned.

According to a knowledgeable senior administration official, Tillerson warned his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov: the U.S. sees that Russia and Syria may be prepping for another chemical weapons attack; and that there will be consequences if Assad follows through with it.

All this occurred this week as President Donald Trump displayed what two White House officials characterized as relative indifference and passivity towards the subject, instead opting to focus his public and private energies towards fuming at his domestic enemies in the Democratic Party and the “fake news.”

“The president cares more about CNN and the Russia story than [Syria] at the moment,” one official observed.

The first senior administration official would not discuss the underlying intelligence behind the White House’s warning, but said it matched the sort of indications the U.S. had previously observed ahead of Assad’s “prior CW [chemical weapons] attacks,” and the Trump administration opted to deliver a warning through public and private channels.

“Our main aim is to make sure nothing happens,” the official told The Daily Beast.

Lavrov told Tillerson that nothing will happen—“as always,” the official noted.

The Russian foreign ministry emphasized a different aspect of Tillerson’s call.

In a statement issued Monday summarizing the conversation between the two chief diplomats, Moscow said Lavrov urged Tillerson to prevent “provocations” by the U.S. and its allies against “Syrian government forces carrying out operations against terrorists.” According to the Russian foreign ministry, the agenda for the call was to discuss implementing the ceasefire plan that Russia, Turkey and Iran—and not the U.S.—recently negotiated in Kazakhstan.

Several times this month, most recently on June 20, U.S. forces in Syria have moved on Syrian aircraft, ostensibly to protect its own Syrian allies. It twice shot down Iranian-made drones and even downed a piloted Syrian fighter jet, prompting deep concern over escalation between the two major world powers in a proxy conflict.

Hours after the Tillerson-Lavrov call, press secretary Sean Spicer’s own missive said vaguely that Assad and his military would “pay a heavy price” for any “mass murder attack using chemical weapons.” Spicer conspicuously did not mention Russia in his statement.

On April 6, following the first chemical attack Assad launched during Trump’s presidency, U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian base used to stage the chemical assault where the Russians also operate. While it is not clear when the U.S. received the underlying intelligence behind Monday’s warning, a Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said that it concerned the same Shayrat airbase near Homs that the American military struck in April—a clear sign that the earlier strike did not eliminate its chemical-weapons capability.

“Inartfully Drafted”

On April 6, following the first chemical attack Assad launched during Trump’s presidency, U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian base used to stage the chemical assault where the Russians also operate. While it is not clear when the U.S. received the underlying intelligence behind Monday’s warning, a Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said that it concerned the same Shayrat airbase near Homs that the American military struck in April.

While no Russians were harmed in the attack, thanks to a prior warning, the Trump administration believes that Moscow does not want a second U.S. missile or airstrike against its ally. Trump’s unexpectedly martial response to Assad’s chemical barrage, a reversal of his previous comments indicating the U.S had no appetite to prevent the Syrian dictator from doing as he liked, disrupted his administration’s rapprochement to Moscow.

The warning to Assad prompted much of the U.S. national security apparatus to stonewall reporters seeking additional information – which in turn prompted concern that much of that apparatus was taken by surprise by the warning. A U.S. Central Command official told Buzzfeed that the official had “no idea” to what Spicer was referring.

But the senior administration official, who was granted anonymity because the official was not cleared to speak to reporters, said that it should not come as a surprise to the Pentagon, which took part in recent high-level meetings on “the underlying topic.”

The official said Spicer’s statement may have been “inartfully drafted” and defended the underlying decision to warn the Syrians and their Russian sponsors of a certain reprisal for any follow-on chemical attack.

“On balance, it’s good to make clear there will be consequences,” the official said, in the hope of deterring Assad.

Within the Trump White House and the president’s inner circle, the number of advisers kept in the loop on this was relatively small, according to administration officials with knowledge of the conversations. At least one senior Trump aide expressed some “surprise,” however, to The Daily Beast at just how caught off-guard so many in the Trump administration’s national security wing seemed to be on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Kushner, Bannon in the Loop

Within the Trump White House and the president’s inner circle, the number of advisers kept in the loop on this was relatively small, according to administration officials with knowledge of the conversations. At least one senior Trump aide expressed some “surprise,” however, to The Daily Beast at just how caught off-guard so many in the Trump administration’s national security wing seemed to be on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

“The fact of the matter is that inter-agency coordination did take place, but it’s also true that ‘normal channels’ have proven 100% ineffective in stopping these attacks for more than 5 years,” said a third senior administration official said of the stark statement. “Shaking up this system a little bit and surprising people-including Assad-might not be a terrible idea,” the official said of sending the written warning out without providing the usual immediate background information to allies or the media of what triggered the warning.

The fast-moving decision cycle from spotting activity at Shayrat airbase to sending the Syrians and Russians a warning took only “a matter of hours,” and all senior levels of the national security community were aware of the incident and the White House decision to respond, the official said.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, as well as chief strategist Steve Bannon, were consulted prior to Monday evening’s Syria announcement. In the past, the two have clashed on an array of ideological and political issues, including how deeply involved the Trump administration should be involved in the Syrian war. In April, Kushner pushed the president to launch the missile strike against the Assad regime, while Bannon cautioned that further military action in Syria would risk betraying Team Trump’s “America first” stance.

One of the senior administration officials said Trump himself helped craft the statement and was instrumental in sending it out and letting it stand on its own for several hours without further explanation. “We've had five years of them attack and the international community acting with outrage, and then it happens again,” the official said. “So he saw an opportunity to have it maybe not happen.”

However, White House officials speaking to The Daily Beast painted a picture of a president who, for the time being, is far more obsessed by negative press attention and media feuds at home than any coming atrocities abroad.

On Tuesday morning, President Trump’s personal Twitter feed was filled with tweets attacking CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, The Washington Post, and and The New York Times as “Fake News!” and “failing.” The president retweeted the official account of Fox & Friends, one of his favorite shows where he derives some of his Republican talking points, multiple times in the early morning. He bashed CNN several times for a recently retracted story and called out the “3 employees forced to resign.” He retweeted someone mocking the network with a photoshopped image declaring them the “FAKE NEWS NETWORK.”

There wasn’t a peep about Syria, chemical weapons, or the Assad dictatorship.

—with additional reporting by Kim Dozier

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