Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Let’s briefly take stock of what’s about to happen in the U.S. Senate.
A president who lost the popular vote by 2,864,974 nominated Neil Gorsuch to serve a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest Court. Although a bloc of senators representing at least 53 percent of the country oppose this nominee, Gorsuch is all but certain to be confirmed — after a bit of a showdown over the Senate’s rules.
Gorsuch’s confirmation will come more than a year after President Obama — a president who won the popular vote, twice — nominated Merrick Garland to the same vacant seat on the Supreme Court. At the time, Democratic senators represented over 53 percent of the nation. Yet Garland was not confirmed because, in the bizarre kind of math that exists in the U.S. Senate, 53 percent support only earned the Democratic caucus 46 percent of the Senate’s seats.
This is hardly an unusual event in the Senate’s history. The Senate is the product of a compromise that, while it made sense at the time, rested on assumptions that haven’t been true for more than a century. It was an early bulwark for southern slaveholders and a firewall protecting Jim Crow. One of its most defining traits, the filibuster, was invented accidentally by the villain in a popular Broadway musical.
The Senate is a relic, wrapped in a mistake, wrapped in a toxic dose of sanctimony.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is one of the few Democrats who will not vote to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination. He explained to reporters that he doesn’t want to goad Senate Republicans into eliminating filibusters of Supreme Court nominees, which they are expected to do after Gorsuch is filibustered.
“People who have been here for a long time know that we’re going down the wrong path here,” Manchin claimed. “The most unique political body in the world, the United States Senate, will be no more than a six-year term in the House.”
Manchin may be right that the Senate is the world’s most unique political body, but it is unique in the same way that Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is a unique restaurant, or that Nickelback is a unique band. The Senate is theShowgirls of legislative chambers, the Miller Clear Beer of lawmaking bodies. It’s past time someone put it to sleep.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the document that set 13 British colonies on the path to independence, “that all men are created equal.” Eleven years later, several of the same men who signed this Declaration of Independence joined the delegates to America’s constitutional convention — where they promptly cast aside any pretense that the United States is dedicated to the notion that all people are equal.
The Founding Fathers betrayed the Declaration’s promise with a Constitution that explicitly protected the institution of slavery. But they also betrayed it with the Senate, which treats residents of small states as more worthy of representation than residents of larger states.
In fairness, there’s a good explanation for why delegates from larger states were willing to trade away their right to equal representation in the national legislature. The Articles of Confederation, which proceeded the Constitution, was less a charter for a single nation and more akin to NATO, or perhaps the European Union. As Yale law professor Akhil Amar explains, the Articles were “an alliance, a multilateral treaty of sovereign nation-states.”
Under the Articles, Congress could neither tax individuals directly, raise troops, or provide for an army — a matter of great annoyance to General George Washington. The 13 former colonies largely functioned as their own independent nations.
The Senate is a relic, wrapped in a mistake, wrapped in a toxic dose of sanctimony.
Yet, while the United States’ first experiment in unity was more treaty than Union, early American leaders were both well-versed in European history and fearful of the warfare than inevitably results when rival nations share geographic borders. The Constitution was thus an effort to solve two problems at once: to bind the 13 states together in a manner that would keep them from warring with each other, but also to ensure that this Union had real authority over its citizens.
Understood in this context, the Great Compromise that led to the Senate makes sense. Large states like Pennsylvania and New York feared war with their neighboring states more than they feared being outvoted in the Senate. Small states had a stronger claim to equal representation when they were conceived of as independent nations and not simply a collection of individual citizens. And, in any event, the malapportioned Senate would be less dysfunctional that the loose collection of separate nations joined together under the Articles of Confederation.
Yet, whatever the logic of this compromise in 1787, a lot has changed since then. The United States has a coherent national identity. Rhode Island has little to fear from the conquering armies of nearby Massachusetts. Utah is not going to fight a war with Colorado.
And yet the Senate persists, treating each resident of Wyoming as 67 times more worthy than each resident of California, despite the fact that the circumstances that birthed the Senate no longer exist.
Not long after the Constitution was ratified, slaveholders discovered that they had a problem — most of the nation lived in free states. By the early 1820s, free states controlled 105 of the 187 seats in the House of Representatives — and that’s after you account for the fact that the Three-Fifths Compromisepermitted slave states to count 60 percent of their enslaved and disenfranchised population when it came time to allocate seats in the House.
If the House were the only game in town, in other words, it could conceivably have banned the slave trade — or at least taken fairly aggressive steps to hobble the South’s “peculiar institution.”
The South’s fears came to a head in 1819, when an obscure New York congressman introduced amendments to legislation admitting Missouri as a state, which would have banned any expansion of slavery within Missouri and required that all new children born into slavery be freed at age 25. Among other things, if Missouri were admitted into the Union on these terms, free states would have gained a majority in the Senate.
The response, as Princeton historian Sean Wilentz writes, was “blistering.” Southern lawmakers “virtually threatened secession were the amendments approved.” Northerners united behind the amendments in the House, pushing them across the finish line to passage.
Nevertheless, the amendments were ultimately defeated in the Senate, after five northern senators crossed over to vote with a unified South. Missouri was eventually admitted to the Union as a slave state, under the terms enacted through the so-called Missouri Compromise.
The Senate, however, truly came into its own as a savior for Southern racists in the century following the Civil War.
In 1875, Reconstruction was on its last legs. Democrats, then the party most sympathetic to Southern whites, recently regained control of the House of Representatives. When Mississippi Democrats staged a violent uprising to seize control of their state, President Grant did not send troops to intervene. Within just two years, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes would sell out African Americans in the South in order to secure his own election — trading the end of Reconstruction for the presidency.
Yet, even as white supremacists tightened their grip on the old Confederacy, Congress, several senators elected under Reconstruction governments had not yet completed their terms. As racist mobs marched through the state, Mississippi still had two Republican senators in 1875 — one of whom, Sen. Blanche Bruce, was a black man.
1875 was thus the last year until midway through the next century that Congress enacted a civil rights law of any kind. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited racial discrimination by “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” though this provision was soon struck down by the Supreme Court.
The reason why no new civil rights bill emerged from Congress until 1957 was the Senate. Though five such bills cleared the House in the 12 years following World War II alone, Senate malapportionment gave the southern senators far more influence over the legislative process than their states’ population could justify.
That, combined with another peculiarity of the Senate, was enough to halt civil rights in its tracks.
This is an impolitic time for a liberal news site to discuss the history of the filibuster. A bloc of Democrats comprising a majority of the nation but a minority of the seats in the Senate hope to keep a very conservative judge off the Supreme Court through a filibuster. Republican leaders hope to block this maneuver by eliminating filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. Having endured under the filibuster for so many years, the United States would undoubtedly be better off if the filibuster survives just a little bit longer until the Gorsuch nomination is defeated.
Yet, while the senators hoping to filibuster Gorsuch represent a majority of the nation, this state of affairs is fairly unusual. The filibuster played a major role in Southern senators’ efforts to halt civil rights legislation. It played a similar role in a Republican minority’s efforts to shut down the only agency that can enforce much of federal labor law in 2013, and it was the centerpiece of Republican efforts to sabotage the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it was even operational. The last time the Senate erupted into a nuclear showdown over the filibuster, a Republican minority tried to prevent President Obama from confirming anyone to a powerful appeals court in Washington, DC.
Far more often than not, in other words, the filibuster thwarts democracy rather than reinforcing it. It cheated African Americans out of their full status as citizens. It threatened to dismantle entire agencies, despite the fact that Congress passed no law permitting this to happen. If the filibuster rules do change this week, Democrats should lament the rise of Neil Gorsuch, but they should not weep to see one of the most anti-democratic aspects of the Senate suffer another cut.
The filibuster’s very existence is an historic accident arising from one of Aaron Burr’s final acts as vice president. As Brookings political scientist Sarah Binder recounts the history, the lame duck vice president returned to the Senate in 1805, fresh off his indictment for killing Alexander Hamilton. There, as the Senate’s presiding officer, he told the senators that their rule book was too complicated and had too many duplicative procedures. One process in particular, the “previous question motion,” Burr deemed especially worthy of removal.
And the Senate believed him. They eliminated this motion the next year.
It turned out, however, that the previous question motion was not superfluous, it was a motion that enabled senators to cut off debate on a subject when a minority wanted to keep that debate going. Thus, by eliminating the motion, Burr effectively enabled dissenters to delay a vote indefinitely by forcing the Senate to “debate” it until the majority gave up.
No one actually attempted this until 1837, when “a minority block of Whig senators prolonged debate to prevent Andrew Jackson’s allies from expunging a resolution of censure against him.” But filibusters grew increasingly common over most of the following century and in 1917, the Senate amended its rules to permit a two-thirds supermajority to end debate. This threshold was eventually lowered to 60 senators, and later to 51 senators for confirmation votes not involving Supreme Court nominees.
In any event, one of the Senate’s most distinctive features, the filibuster, is not part of some grand vision of minority rights handed down from up on high to the Founding Fathers. It is an accident, created by a lame duck vice president and a body of senators who did not understand what they were doing.
In its inception, the Senate had two anti-democratic features. It is malapportioned, and its members were originally selected by state legislatures, not by the voters themselves. As explained above, it soon developed a third major anti-democratic feature, the filibuster.
The good news, for those of us who believe that the right to govern should flow from the will of the people, is that the Senate has gotten better over time. The Seventeenth Amendment provides for direct election of senators. The filibuster is part-way through a process that is likely to end in its demise.
Nevertheless, curing the Senate’s greatest sin against democracy — the fact that it treats a person from California as 1/67th of a person from Wyoming — will be a much heavier lift.
Although the Constitution provides two processes for amendments, these processes come with two caveats. No amendment could be made prior to 1808 curtailing the slave trade, and “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”
Theoretically, there are ways around this problem. The United States could ratify two amendments to the Constitution — one permitting amendments to the Senate’s makeup and another actually changing that makeup or abolishing the Senate. Or, alternatively, a single amendment could leave the Senate in place as a malapportioned body, but reduce its authority so that it becomes an advisory body similar to the British House of Lords.
The problem with these solutions, however, is that any amendment requires the consent of three-fourths of the states, and it is unlikely that the states that benefit from malappointment will vote to reduce their own power.
So that leaves one last option, a constitutional revolution. And there is one very significant precedent for such radical change.
Under the Articles of Confederation, amendments were only permitted with the unanimous consent of the states. Nevertheless, a new Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia which, by its own terms, became effective upon “the ratification of the conventions of nine states.” The Constitution of the United States is, in this sense, unconstitutional.
We the People could once again invoke a similar process to create a more democratic union — one that is not only free of Senate malapportionment, but also free of other anti-democratic aspects of our present system such as partisan gerrymandering and the Electoral College.
I have no illusions that this will happen any time soon, but it is likely the only way that the United States can become a truly democratic republic — one where everyone’s vote counts equally, regardless of where they live.
Nunes briefs reporters in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017. Reuters / Jonathan Ernst
Things went from bad to worse for House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on Thursday.
Fifteen days after he made a mysterious announcement about incidental surveillance of the President Trump’s transition team, Nunes said he would temporarily recuse himself from the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the election, as the House Ethics Committee investigates whether he improperly exposed classified information.
The announcement was a stunning turnaround for Nunes, who less than a week ago had told reporters that “there’s not a better person in the House of Representatives to do this investigation than me.”
Republican leadership had backed Nunes throughout the scandal — despite a handful of critics within the conference.
And headlines had recently improved for the embattled chairman.
Reports emerged Monday that former national security adviser Susan Rice, who served under President Obama, had sought to learn the identities of Trump transition officials caught up in U.S. surveillance — apparently corroborating Nunes’ original announcement.
But the open Ethics probe appears to have sapped that support.
After previously saying that he did not believe Nunes should recuse himself, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday that he “supported” Nunes’ decision. He emphasized that the chair retains his trust but said that the Ethics probe would be a “distraction” to the committee’s investigation.
The recusal gives Democrats — who have clamored for Nunes to step down — a major scalp in the contentious investigation.
“I did have plenty reason to think that [Nunes] should not be in that role, both because of his role in the Trump transition and because of his erratic and bizarre behavior as chairman of the committee,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters.
Committee Republicans kept a conspicuously low profile on Thursday morning as lawmakers prepared to leave town for the two-week Easter recess.
Nunes himself — in a raincoat and jeans — ducked out of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office and into a car shortly after the last vote, answering questions with silence.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a senior panel member who will head the investigation in Nunes’ absence, would say little more than that the investigation would continue.
A fatigued-looking, unshaven Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) — who along with Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) will assist Conaway — declined to answer questions from reporters who cornered him in an elevator after the announcement.
“Y’all have a nice weekend,” he said, leaning back on a railing as the doors closed.
Nunes and his allies have characterized the Ethics probe as a political hit job.
“The Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for attacking such a man and unfortunately, it looks like their shame index has been blurred beyond recognition at this point,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
Nunes said in a statement announcing the recusal that multiple “leftwing activist groups” had filed complaints against him to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). He called the allegations “entirely false and politically motivated.”
The Ethics Committee made its own formal announcement just minutes after Nunes announced his recusal.
That panel began its investigation without waiting for OCE, which reviews allegations from outside groups and can refer cases to Ethics for review.
Since he stepped up to the microphone two weeks ago, Nunes has been at the eye of a steadily-intensifying storm.
On March 22, Nunes shocked reporters by announcing during a solo press conference that he had uncovered evidence that information on President Trump’s transition team had been incidentally swept up in legal U.S. surveillance.
He provided few details about what, precisely, he had seen, but hurried to the White House that afternoon to brief the president on his findings.
Later, he said that he was concerned that officials had inappropriately sought to learn the names of Trump transition team members — names that are normally “masked” to protect the privacy of U.S. persons caught up in foreign surveillance.
The disclosure immediately raised concerns from lawmakers who said that, by even disclosing the existence of the intercepts, Nunes had inappropriately revealed classified information.
Nunes has said it “appears” that the intercepts were collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — but FISA materials are considered classified until explicitly declassified by the agency that made the original designation.
If the National Security Agency (NSA) or the FBI had not declassified whatever records that Nunes referred to, intelligence law experts say, it was possible that he illegally exposed classified information.
But those complaints were quickly overshadowed at the time, after reports emerged that revealed Nunes’ sources were two White House staff members — who might presumably have briefed the president on any inappropriate surveillance themselves.
Democrats clamored for Nunes’ recusal, arguing that he had acted under pressure from the White House to substantiate the president’s apocryphal claim that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” him.
The uproar effectively halted the committee’s work for a week and raised questions about the survival of the probe.
But for a few days, at least, it appeared Nunes might have quelled the storm. He met with ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to hammer out a preliminary witness list for the probe and the committee resumed their normal meetings.
That brief calm exploded on Thursday morning with Nunes’s announcement. Democrats say they learned about the recusal from news alerts — not in a normal committee meeting that morning that had ended only moments before.
Nunes retains his gavel — and Democrats on Thursday struck a conciliatory note. Schiff expressed his “appreciation” for the chair’s recusal and said he looked forward to working with him on other issues.
Many had kind words for Conaway, including some of Nunes’ fiercest critics. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told reporters he “had confidence” in Conaway, while Schiff said he looked forward to working with him.
“I think it will allow us to have a fresh start moving forward,” Schiff said.
Source: Shutterstock/Getty Images
In a Wednesday night interview with Fox News, Vice President Mike Pence told the network “the American people have a right to know if there was surveillance of any private citizen in this country.” What he did not mention, of course, is that the American people currently do not have that right thanks, in part, to one Mike Pence.
The vice president was responding to a question about whether or not former national security adviser Susan Rice should testify before the House Intelligence Committee about her requests to the FBI to unmask the names of Trump officials in intelligence reports about Russia. It’s something Rice admits to doing, but insists she did not do for political reasons. Some conservative outlets have also accused Rice of leaking details of a conversation between former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a charge she denies.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) April 5, 2017
Still Pence told Fox he’s concerned about Rice and that such surveillance powers should be “troubling to anyone who cherishes civil liberties in this country.”
His concern about civil liberties and the surveillance of private citizens is not unwarranted. For decades privacy rights advocates have worried about the federal government’s increasing power to surveil it’s own citizens — powers that were dramatically expanded over the past decade, thanks in part, to Mike Pence.
As a member of Congress in during the Bush administration, Pence voted for a number measures to expand the surveillance state, including several measures that loosened restrictions on monitoring American citizens.
Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Pence voted for to authorize and reauthorize the USA Patriot Act which allowed intelligence agencies to gather intelligence from U.S. citizens. In addition he also voted in favor of the Protect America Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which gave intelligence agencies the ability to collect “foreign intelligence” from American citizens communicating with foreign agents.
“The Protect America Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, both dramatically lowered protections that would generally apply and they opened the door to a lot of Americans communicating with foreigners,” Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union focusing on surveillance, privacy and national security, said in a phone interview.
As for that “Americans have the right to know” assertion, well, those laws also limit the extent to which private citizens have a right to know they are being or have been surveilled. “If the government is collecting my information under [the FISA Amendments Act] I likely have no way of finding that out,” Guliani said. “The idea that you have a right to know that doesn’t exist under our current national security laws.”
According to Guliani, the powers granted to the intelligence community under the FISA Amendments Act, could have been used to justify monitoring of former national security adviser Michael Flynn during his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
During his time in Congress, Pence also voted against some measures that would hold the newly empowered surveillance state accountable, including one measure that would have required the Justice Department’s Inspector General to provide reports to the House Intelligence Committee about the number of American citizens being surveilled.
Perhaps, now that Pence has voiced some newfound concerns about the U.S.’ expansive surveillance powers, he will reconsider some of his previous legislative decisions. Until then Pence should consider conducting his private conversations behind closed doors.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The diplomatic situation had been looking bright for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. With the help of Russia, he had consolidated his power, the rebels were on their heels and the United States had just declared that ousting him was not a priority.
So why would Mr. Assad risk it all, outraging the world by attacking civilians with what Turkey now says was the nerve agent sarin, killing scores of people, many of them children? Why would he inflict the deadliest chemical strike since the 2013 attacks outside Damascus? Those attacks came close to bringing American military retaliation then. And in a stunningly swift reversal, Tuesday’s attack drew a response from President Trump: dozens of cruise missiles launched at a Syrian air base.
One of the main defenses offered by Mr. Assad’s allies and supporters, in disputing that his forces carried out the strike on Tuesday, is that such an attack would be “a crazy move,” as one Iranian analyst, Mosib Na’imi, told the Russian state-run news site Sputnik. Yet, rather than an inexplicable act, analysts say, it is part of a carefully calculated strategy of escalating attacks against civilians.
For years, at least since it began shelling neighborhoods with artillery in 2012, then bombing them from helicopters and later from jets, the Syrian government has adopted a policy of seeking total victory by making life as miserable as possible for anyone living in areas outside its control.
Government forces have been herding defeated opponents from across the country into Idlib Province, where the chemical attack occurred. Starved and bombed out of their enclaves, they are bused under lopsided surrender deals to the province, where Qaeda-linked groups maintain a presence the Syrian military uses as an excuse to bomb without regard for the safety of civilians.
Dr. Monzer Khalil, Idlib Province’s health director, said such extreme tactics aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes.
“It makes us feel that we are defeated,” said Dr. Khalil, whose gums bled after he was exposed to scores of chemical victims on Tuesday. “The international community will stay gazing at what’s happening — and observing the explosive barrels falling and rockets bombing the civilians and the hospitals and the civil defense and killing children and medical staff — without doing anything.”
“Militarily, there is no need,” said Bente Scheller, the Middle East director of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation. “But it spreads the message: You are at our mercy. Don’t ask for international law. You see, it doesn’t protect even a child.”
On Thursday, Syria’s foreign minister challenged accounts by witnesses, experts and world leaders that his government was involved. “I stress to you once again: The Syrian Army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapons — not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds,” the minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in Damascus.
But the denial, as well as a Russian assertion that a bomb hit a chemical weapons depot controlled by the rebels, seemed perfunctory, almost without regard to the facts, which Western governments said pointed to a Syrian government hand.
Critics of President Barack Obama, including President Trump, say that his decision not to enforce his “red line” on chemical attacks in 2013 convinced the Assad government it could get away with anything, and that it has been escalating its harsh tactics against civilians ever since.
Since that “green light,” wrote Jihad Yazigi, an opposition-leaning Syrian economist, “Assad knows that a large-scale attack against its civilians is a short-term public relations liability but a long-term political asset.”
That was only reinforced, critics say, by recent statements by American officials that it was time to accept the “political reality” of Mr. Assad’s grip on power.
By showing it puts no limits on the tactics it uses, Mr. Yazigi wrote, “the regime shows to the world the West’s impotence and weakness.”
Dr. Khalil, 35, fled his job at a state-run hospital in 2011. The Syrian uprising was in its early days, with largely peaceful protests that faced crackdowns from security forces. He said he was threatened with arrest for treating wounded protesters.
In 2015, a mix of Qaeda-linked and other rebels, some supported by the United States and its allies, drove government forces from Idlib, the capital of Idlib Province. Dr. Khalil became the health director. The city then became a bombing target, and the Syrian government accused the Americans of backing the Qaeda-linked group, then called the Nusra Front.
“We are aware that we are in this Qaeda trap,” Dr. Khalil said. “But in Idlib we have 3.3 million people, and how many Qaeda fighters? You cannot kill the three million for their sake.”
The fall of Idlib led to another turning point: Russia’s full-on entry into the conflict, adding its firepower to the Syrian government’s. Russia said it entered to fight the Islamic State, but directed most of its strikes at places farther west, like Idlib, where rival insurgents more urgently threatened government forces.
Chlorine attacks continued — investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations concluded the government had carried out at least three in 2014 and 2015 — with little international reaction.
Idlib’s population grew as rebels and civilians moved there from areas recaptured by Assad forces and allies.
After Mr. Trump came into office, proclaiming a wish to work with Russia and maybe even Mr. Assad against the Islamic State, expectations grew that the international community would accept relegitimizing Mr. Assad. And last week came the statements from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, indicating effectively that Washington could accept Mr. Assad remaining in power.
On Monday, Western officials were gathering in Brussels to weigh billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to the Assad government, amid opposition fears that they would drop their demand for a political transition first.
By Thursday, however, American military officials were discussing a possible military strike on Syria, and Mr. Tillerson was saying there was “no role” for Mr. Assad in Syria’s future. And then Thursday — before dawn on Friday in Syria — Mr. Trump ordered the attack on the Shayrat air base, from which, he said, the chemical attack was launched.
Witnesses described how Tuesday’s attack unfolded. That morning, a network of observers was, as usual, tracking the skies to warn residents and rescuers of possible airstrikes. They spotted Syrian aircraft and sent out warnings on walkie-talkies.
Syrian Su-22 aircraft were then seen circling above Khan Sheikhoun at 6:47 a.m. and again at 6:51 a.m. One of the observers — based on long experience — believed that the planes might be carrying a chemical payload.
“Guys, tell people to wear masks,” he warned.
Witnesses put the attack itself at just before 7 a.m. A video of the area at that time shows three towering puffs of smoke and one smaller cloud.
Dr. Khalil said he and his wife were drinking coffee at home at 8 a.m. when he got a call and rushed to Idlib’s central hospital. He found 60 patients already packing the wards. His nose began to itch, from the toxic substances, he believes. Back in Khan Sheikhoun, new airstrikes hit a hospital and a civil defense headquarters.
Across the province, doctors were noticing symptoms similar to those from sarin. Some of the displaced people who wound up in Idlib in recent years come the Damascus suburbs that were attacked with sarin in 2013.
One, a media activist from near Damascus, Moaz al-Shami, was sickened for two months by the 2013 attacks. Now living in Idlib, he was struck with the same vomiting and respiratory distress he remembered from that day.
His voice remained hoarse on the telephone two days later.
Reporting was contributed by Patrick Kingsley from Reyhanli, Turkey; Karam Shoumali and Safak Timur from Istanbul; and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.
A US warship firing cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase on April 6, 2017 | (US Department of Defense)
The United States has just intentionally bombed a Syrian regime target for the first time since the country’s civil war began in 2011. So far, it has been a limited cruise missile strike targeting one Syrian airbase, causing an as-yet-unknown number of casualties.
“Dozens of Tomahawks were launched against a single Syrian regime airfield,” a Department of Defense official told Vox.
The decision to attack was a direct reaction to the Syrian regime’s Tuesday gas attack that claimed 85 lives, including about two dozen children. Images of the Syrians who suffocated to death seemed to shock President Trump, who spoke Wednesday of the “beautiful little babies” killed in the attack, which he described as “an affront to humanity.”
If you think all of that sounds like the polar opposite of what you’ve been hearing from the Trump administration until just a few days ago, you’d be right. Take US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who said in March that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” Or take Tillerson himself, who said in late March that “the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
All of that has changed — rapidly. The president who campaigned on an “America first” platform of keeping the US out of conflicts that don’t directly impact core US national security interests has now intervened in Syria’s intractable civil war. The president who has talked of building closer ties to Vladimir Putin has bombed the Arab dictator Putin has spent years propping up. And the president who was silent just days ago about Assad’s future is now clearly saying the dictator needs to go.
Let’s rewind the tape back to Monday, when reports first began to circulate of a gas attack by the Syrian regime on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 85 people — including 16 women and 23 children — and wounded more than 350. Videos and photos taken by activists and medics on the scene showed victims choking and fainting, some with foam coming out of their mouths. (Assad’s forces later bombed the medical clinic where many survivors were being treated.)
On Tuesday, with the dead still being counted, White House press secretary Sean Spicer saidthat the US would look “rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria,” where Assad’s hold on power has been getting stronger by the day — in large part due to Russian military support.
Trump’s own initial comments focused more on his predecessor’s past handling of Syria than on Assad’s possible role in the country’s future. In a written statement, Trump said Assad’s “heinous actions” were a “consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”
There were two notable things about the statement. The first was how politically petty and tone-deaf it was for Trump to bash Obama in the same breath as Assad. The second was that it didn’t say Assad needed to give up power — or that the US was willing to do much of anything to bring that about.
By Wednesday, Trump was singing a different tune. He said Assad’s gas attack “had a big impact on me,” and that “it’s very possible … that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed.”
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
This paired well with tough talk from Haley, who gave an impassioned speech at the UN that same day in which she held up photos of children killed in the gas attack and asked, “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” — a clear dig at Putin, Assad’s primary overseas backer (and an autocrat whom Trump openly admires).
That set the stage for Thursday, when Trump talked tough on Assad and avoided making another gratuitous dig at his predecessor. Tillerson — without saying so explicitly — implied that the administration would for now basically maintain Obama’s Syria policy, which was predicated on Assad eventually relinquishing power after internationally led diplomatic talks.
For good measure, the secretary of state directed Russia to “consider carefully” its continued support for Assad’s government. That’s highly unlikely. Although Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that their support for Assad wasn’t “unconditional,” Moscow has said this many times before, and its support has so far remained just that — unconditional.
Trump’s decision to bomb the Assad regime because of its use of chemical weapons is new. This isn’t the Trump of the recent past.
Yet Trump fashions himself a tough guy, one willing to go where his predecessor would not. So far, this means sending US cruise missiles into Syria. This isn’t the America-first stance of Trump’s campaign; it’s the start of something new and uncharted, one that could potentially escalate to a broader US war against Assad.
This is a momentous moment for the United States and Syria. And we have no idea, as of right now, where it will lead.