RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. And the missile strike on Syria took place about the time the two leaders were having dinner with their wives. Afterwards, in televised remarks, President Trump said the use of chemical weapons is a threat to the United States.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The refugee crisis continues to deepen. And the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
MARTIN: For more, I'm joined by NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do we know about the decision-making process that led to this strike?
HORSLEY: Well, President Trump has acknowledged this week that this attack changed his calculation about Syria. Of course, the effects of the chemical weapons attack were televised. They filled newspaper headlines here. We know this president watches a lot of television.
He spoke last night about the innocent women and children and, quote, "beautiful babies who were killed in an agonizing way." So he met quickly with his national security team. He was initially presented with three options, honed in on two of those and ultimately settled on this one. The White House stressed this was a proportional response targeting the very airfield from which Tuesday's attack was launched.
They took pains to minimize the casualties among any Russians who might have been in Syria and to avoid hitting a storage depot of sarin gas that might have caused more trouble for people on the ground.
MARTIN: So we heard in that clip the president talking about the crisis in the region, that has been the outgrowth of the Syrian civil war. Is that the administration's primary justification for this attack, the destabilizing effect this war has had in the region?
HORSLEY: Well, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last night that this attack on Tuesday was just one of dozens that have been carried out by the Assad regime since 2013, when its chemical weapons stockpile was supposed to be dismantled. And Tillerson said the lack of reaction by the international community had amounted to a normalizing of the use of chemical weapons.
Moreover, he said in the chaos of the civil war there, there was a possibility those weapons could fall into the hands of people bent on using them against the United States. So the president said in his statement that it is in the U.S. vital national interest to deter the use of these chemical weapons.
In a way, this was President Trump carrying on an argument against vintage 2013 Donald Trump about what constitutes a vital national interest. Back in 2013 when then-President Obama was mulling a similar strike, Trump urged him not to use military force but to focus on domestic problems. What constitutes a domestic problem changes once you're in the White House.
MARTIN: Just briefly, what's the reaction in Congress to this?
HORSLEY: It's been mixed and a little partisan, although not as partisan as a lot of things here. You know, politics doesn't stop at the water's edge anymore, but it does kind of slow down. We heard praise, especially from Republicans, for the decisive action but also some caution that we're still lacking a comprehensive strategy in Syria. And also complaints from some Democrats that this strike was not authorized by Congress beforehand.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.