In keeping with President Donald Trump’s campaign vow not to give the enemy advance knowledge of US actions, the White House on Tuesday said it would “not broadcast” what the US was going to do in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Syria.
But despite that, the Trump administration spent of the day showcasing moves that appeared to telegraph if not the what, then at least the when, of whatever action it’s planning.
Trump abruptly cancelled his weekend trip to Latin America so that he could remain in Washington to “oversee the response to Syria,” becoming the first US president in 24 years to skip the regional Summit of the Americas. It would have been Trump’s first visit to Latin America as president.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also cancelled a weekend trip to San Francisco and Nevada to remain in Washington.
The US Navy announced that the USS Donald Cook left port in Cyprus, moving within striking distance of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean.
The White House also announced a flurry of international phone calls with international leaders. Trump spoke with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He spoke twice in 24 hours with French President Emmanuel Macron. May and Macron spoke with each other.
“We aren’t sure what the Americans will do but it feels like something is coming and there’s a lot of pressure from Macron to act,” one non-French NATO official told BuzzFeed News. A British diplomat based in the region echoed the same feeling.
“Macron is aggressively engaged in this,” he said.
According to the White House, Trump and Macron agreed to “coordinate a strong, joint response” to the attack.
May said she, Trump and Macron agreed that they would work together “to ensure that those responsible were held to account,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement.
The leaders agreed that the attack was “utterly reprehensible and, if confirmed, represented further evidence of the Assad regime’s appalling cruelty against its own people,” the spokesperson said, indicating that they are still working on confirmation that the use of chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Macron met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. At a joint press conference, Bin Salman indicated that Saudi Arabia could participate in the international response in Syria.
“in the coming days we will announce our decision,” Macron said.
The Syrian army was reportedly put on “high alert” for 72 hours.
The suspected chemical attack in the besieged town of Douma over the weekend killed at least 42 people and injured more than 500, according to local rescue workers. Many of those died while they were sheltering in basements to escape the shelling.
Syria’s government and Russia denied that a chemical attack took place, and the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, warned that there would be “grave repercussions” if the US carried out a retaliatory strike. Earlier this week Trump warned that “everybody” involved in the suspected chemical weapons attack will “pay a price.”
The alleged chemical attack on Douma would be the worst such incident since Syrian forces were accused of dropping sarin and other chemicals on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun a year ago, killing more than 80 people. The US retaliated three days later by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase allegedly used to carry out the attack.
Mitch Prothero in Brussels contributed reporting.