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Want a different Syria policy? Just change the channel

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley,

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, here at a Security Council meeting on Friday, April 7, 2017, was among the Trump administration officials voicing conflicting stances on Syria on Sunday's news talk shows. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / Jewel Samad

Fork in the road

Nothing Donald Trump said or tweeted before last week would have predicted his missile strike on Syria. But he did say this the day before: “I do change and I am flexible.”

So flexible that it’s tough to figure where U.S. policy on Syria is now headed. Trump administration officials quizzed about that on the Sunday shows didn’t seem to be reading from the same script.

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley indicated in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that there can’t be a political solution to Syria so long as Bashar Assad remains in power. “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there,” she said.

But stabilizing Syria does not depend on Assad’s exit, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on ABC News’ “This Week.”

“Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said. Afterward, he said, “We believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide” his fate.

Haley harshly denounced Russia’s role in Syria. Tillerson, who is heading to Moscow this week, said, “We are hopeful that we can work with Russia.”

See Scott Eidler and Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.

Is that all clear?

Two Senate hawks on Syria had different reads on the Trump policy after the Tillerson and Haley interviews.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said his take-away from Haley’s remarks is that “You’ll never end the war with Assad in power. So that means regime change is now the policy of the Trump administration. That’s at least what I’ve heard.”

That wasn’t what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he heard from Tillerson.

“This idea that somehow you can just defeat ISIS and then we’ll figure it out with Assad, it’s not going to work,” Rubio said on ABC’s “This Week.” The reason, Rubio said, is that as along as Assad is in power, “you will have a reason for people to be radicalized in Syria.”

The take-away: Base runners

The Syrian air base hit by 59 Tomahawk missiles is back in business, but Trump’s base of support may never be the same. Reactions from nationalists, populists and alt-right figures ran from consternation to cries of betrayal, given Trump’s years of warnings against getting involved in that country.

Paul Joseph Watson of the conspiracy-crazed website InfoWars called the president a puppet and the gas attack that provoked Trump to act “fake.” “I’m officially OFF the Trump train,” he tweeted. Trump’s Brexit bro, Nigel Farage of Britain, also disapproved. See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.

Poll: OK on Syria, but ...

Trump’s missile strike on Syria was backed by 51% of Americans in a Huffington Post/YouGov survey, while 32% opposed it and 17% were uncertain.

Only 20% want Trump to take more military action, while 36% say he should not and 45% are unsure.

In the meantime, Trump’s job approval numbers in Gallup’s daily tracking poll have improved to 40%. He bottomed out at 35% on March 28.

Kim Jong Un, take notes

Tillerson said the missile strike in Syria can be seen as a message to North Korea about its nuclear weapons program as well.

“The message that any nation can take is, ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken,” Tillerson said on ABC’S “This Week.”

K.T. goodbye

Southampton’s K.T. McFarland, a holdover from the brief reign of Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn at the National Security Council, has been asked to leave the Trump White House post and will be offered the nomination of ambassador to Singapore, several reports said.

Bloomberg News reports that both McMaster and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were involved in the decision to oust McFarland from the No. 2 NSC job, deeming her not a good fit.

McFarland worked in Republican administrations in the 1970s and ’80s, and was more recently a Fox News commentator, which had brought her to Trump’s attention.

What else is happening

  • Trump’s vow to deport criminals who aren’t U.S. citizens is proving easier said than done, reports The Washington Post — especially when their home countries won’t take them back.
  • Trump has given up on the tax overhaul plan he campaigned on and the administration has gone back to the drawing board in search of a Republican consensus, The Associated Press reports.
  • Fox News’ parent company is conducting anti-sexual harassment seminars by using the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump bragging about groping women, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The video is presented as an example of what should not happen in a workplace.
  • Trump on Sunday made his 16th visit to one of his golf courses since taking office.
  • Neil Gorsuch will be sworn in Monday as the newest Supreme Court justice, taking the seat left vacant for 14 months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

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