Shortly after amateur President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base Thursday night, Brian Williams of MSNBC spoke of Trump’s motivation.
Two days before, the Syrian regime killed at least 80 of its own citizens with a poison gas attack. On television, Trump saw video clips of people suffering and dying. Some were children.
This viewing apparently caused the president to abruptly change American policy from one of hands-off the Syrian civil war to deliberate intervention against President Bashar al-Assad.
“White House aides are talking to journalists already tonight, saying the president’s from the world of television,” Williams told colleague Chris Matthews early in the 10 p.m. hour. “The President sees his world largely through television. The President saw this on television.”
Indeed, Trump binge-watches cable news channels and reacts impulsively and viscerally to how the pictures and the words make him feel. When he applies this method to foreign policy, it worries even the intellectual commentators on his sanctuary network, Fox News Channel.
One of them, Charles Krauthammer, spoke with trepidation about this a couple hours before the attack began when it was clear what was to come.
“The whipsaw here is quite remarkable,” Krauthammer said on Special Report. “Now, we have an emotional response.”
At that point, anchor Bret Baier interrupted to say Trump changed only after the hideous attack.
“I understand,” Krauthammer replied, with admirable restraint. “But if you’re going to announce a policy and then you revoke it three days later because of the President’s emotional reaction to pictures—remember, Assad has been at this for seven years.”
If this atrocity is a reason to go to war now, Krauthammer asked, why not years ago when President Barack Obama was in power and people like Trump warned him not to fight in Syria, despite previous chemical attacks?
“When a superpower changes its policy radically because the President is moved by pictures,” Krauthammer said, “you’ve got to wonder about the stability of the foreign policy.”
Trump’s sudden military strike forced the broadcast networks to briefly interrupt their regular prime-time programming for bulletins. On the three cable news channels, commercials were scrapped (and it had nothing to do with the advertising boycott against Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox).
On that network, news anchor Shepard Smith broke into the canned and stale O’Reilly Factor at 8:45 p.m. with live updates. On CNN, anchor Anderson Cooper stayed for three hours instead of his scheduled two. And on MSNBC, Williams was joined by Rachel Maddow, who stayed until 11 p.m., an hour after the scheduled end of her regular show.
The attack knocked most other stories out of the news cycle. They included one about Devin Nunes, the Republican congressman from California, recusing himself from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of possible ties between Trump associates and Russians trying to sabotage the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, during last fall’s election.
Nunes, the chairman of the committee, recently scurried back and forth to the White House in an effort to bolster Trump’s unproven accusation that Obama spied on Trump’s staff at Trump Tower.
There was no coverage of Trump’s futile efforts this week to revive the Republican attack on the American health care system. The pundits stopped discussing the demotion of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. There was little mention that Trump’s approval percentages in some polls have dropped into the mid-30s.
Come to think of it, there was little or no mention that an attack—no matter how minimal—against an evil dictator is a sure way for a leader to build up his poor poll ratings in his own nation. Such cynical ploys are often most effective when a U.S. leader tells his citizens that God is on their side.
Indeed, all three cable news networks showed Trump’s recorded remarks into a distorted microphone from his private millionaires’ club in Florida late Thursday night.
“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world,” Trump said. “We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail. Good night, and God bless America and the entire world.”
At least a little skepticism managed to seep into the comments of Maddow on MSNBC and Fareed Zakaria on CNN. Maddow compared Trump’s words to his action of banning Syrian war refugees—many of them Muslim—from the United States.
“His remarks about his sympathy for the Syrian people will be hard to square in days ahead in terms of his ban on Syrian refugees taking refuge in this country,” Maddow said.
In speaking with Cooper, Zakaria tried to look beyond the excited mood of the night.
“If the things you try initially, this first bombing strike, maybe another one, if they don’t work, now you have committed the prestige of the most powerful country in the world,” Zakaria said. “Can you back down or are you then forced to throw good money after bad and good soldiers after dead ones?”