On Thursday evening, the US government launched cruise missiles into Syria days after a deadly chemical weapons attack there.
Earlier that day, Republicans rammed through a change in Senate rules so they could confirm a Supreme Court justice nominee Democrats had been blocking.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, it became clear that the GOP’s bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, which the White House had spent the week trying to resurrect, was now dead again.
And leaks and infighting among White House staffers reached a new level of intensity, with top aides reportedly believing their jobs are at stake.
Welcome to another day in the Trump administration.
The sheer amount of news happening these days can seem overwhelming. Here’s a guide to the new developments and why they matter.
The Syria strikes
The news: On Thursday evening, President Donald Trump ordered the US military to fire dozens of missiles at a Syrian government-controlled airbase, saying he did so in response to an apparent gas attack against a rebel-held town earlier this week that killed dozens of people. US intelligence agencies believe the targeted airbase was used to launch the chemical attacks. Sana, the Syrian state news agency, is saying that nine civilians were killed in the US strike, including four children.
Why it matters: While the US has been militarily involved in Syria for several years now, it has concentrated its firepower against ISIS, and has never directly attacked the Assad regime. So this strike against a regime airbase certainly marks a new milestone in the incredibly complex conflict.
But at this point it is not clear whether this will lead to a more lasting change in the US war strategy. Indeed, Trump administration officials are saying they are not planning any further strikes against the regime at this point, and that this was merely a response to the gas attack. As Zack Beauchamp writes:
By going out of his way to emphasize that this US strike targeted the exact airbase from where the chemical attack was launched, Trump is making it crystal clear that the strike is designed as a specific punishment for the recent chemical attack — and not a broader effort aimed at striking Assad until he stops bombing civilians or leaves power.
Trump seems to be signaling that if Assad sticks to attacking Syrian rebels with conventional weapons rather than gas, there wouldn’t be further strikes against him. However, he could also feel pressure to escalate the conflict further if he doesn’t get results.
The move also could be a harbinger of a closer US alignment with the objectives of authoritarian Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia who have long been pressing the US to take action in Syria. But as Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, this poses “the risk of pulling the United States deeper into a regional conflict with Iran that reflects Gulf states’ interests more than America’s.”
How normal is this? Much of the US foreign policy and military establishments have long been advocating for stronger action against Assad’s regime. And when the regime carried out similar chemical weapons attacks back in 2013, President Barack Obama seriously considered taking similar action, though he ultimately opted to try and pursue a diplomatic solution instead.
What’s most unusual about this is just how quickly Trump seemed to change his views on the issue. As recently as the beginning of this week, Trump officials were outright saying that they no longer viewed Assad’s ouster as a priority. But when reports and images of the gas attack emerged in the news, Trump took a harsher tone, saying “that attack on children” changed his “attitude toward Syria and Assad.” This poses the question of whether the president has really thought through what he could be getting into here, or whether he is acting on impulse.
It should perhaps be noted that, according to at least one savvy observer of American politics, a president could conceivably be tempted to launch a strike abroad to look strong if his domestic political situation starts looking bad:
Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2012
Amid the nuclear option fallout, Neil Gorsuch has been confirmed to the Supreme Court
The news: Senate Republicans used the “nuclear option” Thursday to change the chamber’s rules so that Supreme Court nominations could no longer be filibustered by a minority of senators. They did so to overcome a Democratic filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination, and followed it up by confirming Gorsuch on Friday.
Why it matters: Gorsuch’s confirmation means a conservative justice will once again occupy the seat of the late Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. This will likely return the Court to the status quo of the past decade and ensure that the majority will remain out of liberals’ hands.
However, it wouldn’t bring the Court into wildly new and unprecedented territory. It’s the next vacancy — whether it involves a liberal like 84-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg or 78-year-old Stephen Breyer, or frequent swing vote Anthony Kennedy (who is 80) — that could really change things. And because of the nuclear option rules change, Democrats will no longer be able to filibuster this next nominee.
It’s also noteworthy that Democrats couldn’t really contrive a reason to vote against Gorsuch, other than his conservative views and annoyance over the GOP blockade of President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland. It signals the new reality that the vast majority of Democrats simply can no longer accept confirming a solid conservative to the Supreme Court, just as the Garland blockade shows most Republicans can no longer accept confirming a liberal.
How normal is this? The trend of increased polarization and political combat over the judiciary has been long in the making and has little to do with Donald Trump. And the nuclear option itself was last used in 2013 by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), out of annoyance that Republicans were filibustering President Obama’s judicial nominees. Reid’s rules change didn’t apply to Supreme Court nominations, but McConnell is really finishing the job he started.
The “Weekend at Bernie’s” health care bill
The news: House Republicans left Washington, DC, for a recess despite making no significant new progress on their health care bill, which President Trump has been trying to resurrect two weeks after its ignominious death.
What it means: Republicans’ behavior of the bill in the past week reminds me of the movie Weekend at Bernie’s — they’ve abruptly decided to prop up what looks a whole lot like a corpse and pretend it is alive and well. A series of meetings and discussions about the bill took place in the White House and on Capitol Hill, and some Republicans had insisted that a House vote this very week on some revised version of the bill was a real possibility.
The explanation for all of this appears to be that Trump decided after days of negative media coverage over the health bill’s failure that he wanted the health bill to be brought back, and therefore ordered top aides like chief of staff Reince Priebus and Vice President Mike Pence to make it happen. (In Priebus’s case, CNN reports that his job could be at risk if he doesn’t turn things around with the health bill.)
The problem is that, well, they didn’t know how to make it happen, because there are enormous substantive differences between the two holdout groups of Republicans that killed the AHCA, which makes it very difficult to please both groups. (The Freedom Caucus thinks the bill didn’t repeal enough of Obamacare, and the Coverage Caucus feared it could cause millions of their constituents to lose their insurance or benefits.) In the end, it’s not too surprising that talks went nowhere.
A White House shakeup could be coming
The news: A series of leaks from inside the administration indicates that both Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon are in danger of losing their jobs in a coming White House shakeup.
Leaks are also indicating that Bannon and White House senior son-in-law Jared Kushner have increasingly clashed of late, both personally and over the administration’s overall strategy. The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng even reports that, per one administration official, Bannon recently called Kushner a “cuck” and a “globalist” behind his back, while the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, Jeremy Peters, and Peter Baker report that Bannon called Kushner “a Democrat” to his face.
What it means: At the root of all this is the fact that Trump is nearing three months in office remarkably unpopular and without many significant accomplishments to speak of.
Naturally, someone needs to get the blame, and it makes sense for that to fall on Priebus and Bannon, the top two White House staffers. It’s interesting that the two represent distinctly different wings in the administration, with Priebus being an ally of Paul Ryan and the GOP establishment while Bannon heads the outsider “nationalist” faction, but are both on the chopping block.
This makes sense, though, because each wing is responsible for one of the administration’s major fiascos so far — Priebus and the GOP establishment are being blamed for the failure of the health bill, while Bannon and the nationalists are being blamed for his handling of Trump’s immigration and travel order aimed at people from of several predominantly Muslim countries.
Kushner, meanwhile, is associated with a sort of third administration faction that is both less partisan and less provocative. This has been called the “New York” faction, and it is said to include National Economic Director and former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn and National Security Council official Dina Powell — as well as Kushner’s wife Ivanka Trump, who recently got an official White House job. If this faction’s power continues to increase, the administration could be more willing to take a less ideological path. So keep an eye on who gets the top jobs if this shakeup does in fact take place.