WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump in a statement Tuesday said a suspected chemical attack that killed dozens in a rebel-held Syrian district “cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But he also accused former President Barack Obama of enabling such violence with “weakness and irresolution.”
Graphic images of suffering civilians, including small children, circulated after what is believed to have been a toxic gas delivered via a government airstrike in the Idlib province.
Trump did not address the attack during his two public appearances. Instead, he repeated his campaign promise to be responsible to Americans first and foremost.
“I’m not — and I don’t want to be — the president of the world. I’m the president of the United States,” Trump told a gathering of building industry representatives.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer first read to reporters a statement that in large part blamed Obama.
The statement was later attributed to Trump.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” it read, referring to the Syrian president by name. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing.”
Obama’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Spicer was asked whether the White House believes Russian President Vladimir Putin — an Assad ally — was involved in the Idlib attack and responded that the statement spoke for itself.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, last week indicated that Trump will not prioritize ousting Assad and ending the civil war in Syria, and that Trump instead is focused on defeating the Islamic State group.
Tillerson said the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” — a sentiment criticized Tuesday by a lawmaker within Trump’s party.
“They are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking some kind of new arrangement with the Russians,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN of Syrian leaders. “And it is another disgraceful chapter in American history.”
But McCain also said Obama had drawn a red line, then let Assad cross it without penalty, setting a bad precedent.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “While President Trump cozies up to Assad and the Russians, children and civilians have once again been gassed in Syria.”
Also on Tuesday at a “CEO town hall” discussing deregulation, Trump reunited with business leaders he knows from his years as a New York City real estate mogul.
He called the attendees “all the killers from New York.”
First daughter Ivanka Trump, a newly minted unpaid West Wing adviser, also was there.
The president touted his infrastructure investment plan, saying the bill could cost “a trillion dollars, perhaps even more,” and vowed a “very major haircut on Dodd-Frank” banking regulations. He has not released details for either measure.
Later in the day, Trump spoke at a conference for the North America’s Building Trades Unions, calling unions the “backbone of America” and outlining plans to keep them working.
Trump on Wednesday hosts King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House. The president will depart Thursday for his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.