Friday morning, the White House released a photo of President Donald Trump and his national security team being briefed on the missile strike against the Syrian regime at the Secure Compartmented Information Facility that’s been assembled at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
And it’s a little bit strange.
Some of the people visible in the image seem like naturals for this kind of meeting, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who needs to be able to speak authoritatively about the president’s activities. That the Trump administration is structured around an awkward troika — Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner — rather than a traditional chief of staff model is odd, but given the context it’s natural that all three are there.
But the secretaries of Commerce and Treasury are also on hand, along with National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.
Their briefs have nothing to do with Syria, chemical weapons, or anything else. They just happen to have been in Mar-a-Lago with the president because the original purpose of the trip was to host a summit with Xi Jinping, president of China. The US-China relationship has crucial economic dimensions, so Trump wanted his top policymakers on trade and economics to be present at the meeting. Then, when the meeting was interrupted by a crisis in Syria, he apparently wanted to round up all the senior officials available and stuff them in a room.
The result is a photo that’s broadly reminiscent of the iconic image of Barack Obama monitoring the strike on Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room.
But Obama, of course, didn’t have Gary Locke or Larry Summers or Tim Geithner in that room. It was crowded because Obama was in DC, so the whole national security team was present was rather than being on remote video conference.