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President Trump Meets With King Abdullah Of Jordan


Today at a joint news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Trump reacted to the horrific images of Syrian children suffering in a nerve gas attack. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line from the White House to discuss the president's reactions and other news of the day. Mara, good to hear from you.


SIEGEL: In the past, Trump criticized President Obama over his inaction in Syria. What did he say today about this week's nerve gas attack in Syria?

LIASSON: Well, he said the attacks had - on children had a really big impact on him. Here's a little bit of what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies - babies - little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines beyond a red line - many, many lines.

LIASSON: He said this heinous act cannot be tolerated and that his attitude towards Syria and Assad had changed very much. So it's possible this means he's changing his mind from what had been a very consistent position on Syria, which was that it wasn't our fight. You know, as you said, he repeatedly criticized President Obama not just for drawing a red line and then erasing it but for considering intervention in Syria at all.

And just a day or two ago, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, had said that requiring that Assad be removed was no longer the U.S. position. And that prompted Marco Rubio and others to say that the Trump administration had given Assad the impression that he could act with impunity, and that's what led to this latest chemical attack. But now the president is reacting to these horrific scenes on television. It's clear that it wasn't acceptable to him to stand there and say, well, the images are horrible, but we are not going to get involved.

SIEGEL: Well, his language was very tough.

LIASSON: That's right.

SIEGEL: But what does this mean in terms of any U.S. action in Syria?

LIASSON: Well, that's a big question because he was asked, if his attitude had changed, then what did he plan to do differently from President Obama? And all he would say is that when it comes to military action, quote, "I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing. I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or another." So it sounds like he doesn't have a specific new approach in mind. And even at the United Nations today, Nikki Haley, who had very, very tough words for Assad and for the Russians, stopped short of promising any specific U.S. action. So yes, a change in rhetoric for sure - not yet clear if it's a change in policy.

SIEGEL: The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is meeting with Trump later this week. What did the president have to say about that?

LIASSON: Well, unprompted, he brought up that meeting. He said, I know I have a responsibility to respond in Syria, and also I have a responsibility for North Korea, which is a big problem. He did not repeat the threat he'd made in a Financial Times interview earlier this week that if China didn't solve the North Korea problem, the U.S. would do it ourselves, suggesting that he was referring to unilateral military action. So there, like so much else about Trump's foreign policy, there are still a lot of big question marks.

SIEGEL: Finally, there was a bit of Washington Kremlinology news today from the White House, news that Trump's top political strategist, Steve Bannon, has been removed from the National Security Council. What's that about?

LIASSON: That's right. He no longer has a permanent position on the principals committee. He was the first political adviser to even be given a seat on that committee. Now we have a new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. He's another foreign policy professional and establishment figure taking more control here. And he's reorganizing the National Security Council. It's another sign that maybe Trump's foreign policy process and maybe the substance is getting a little more conventional.

He has started sounding a little bit more like previous presidents. Even on Syria, he's found himself in the same box that President Obama did with all the same frustrations and limitations. He doesn't like what Assad is doing. He even said it crossed lines. But he's not necessarily willing to get the U.S. involved in a war. So when it comes to U.S. presidents, rhetoric can be policy. And today, for the first time, Donald Trump sounded like he believed the U.S. had a responsibility to stay engaged in the world.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.