By Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris
New York Times 

In the days since President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Trump himself.

As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.

The latest mixed messages were sent Monday in both Washington and Europe. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — during a stop in Italy on his way to Moscow for a potentially tense visit, given Russian anger at last week’s missile strike — outlined a dramatically interventionist approach.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson said.

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Hours later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that Trump would act against Syria not just if it resorted to chemical weapons, like the sarin nerve agent reportedly used last week, but also when it used conventional munitions.

“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said.

For Trump, who came to office espousing an “America first” policy that stayed out of the affairs of other countries where the United States had no interest of its own, responding to barrel bombs in Syria or to “any and all” humanitarian abuses “anywhere” would be a far more sweeping standard for U.S. leadership. If anything, it sounds more like the activist advisers around President Barack Obama, such as Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for more intervention to protect civilians in various conflict zones, often to no avail.

Just as likely, analysts said, neither Tillerson nor Spicer really meant it or, possibly, fully understood the potentially far-reaching consequences of what they were saying. Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.

By the end of the day Monday, fearing that a new “red line” had been drawn, the White House sought to unwind Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” officials said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”

The confusion was only heightened when The Associated Press quoted an unidentified U.S. official saying that Russia had known about Syria’s chemical attack in advance. The White House summoned reporters for a background briefing but then made the session off the record, leaving the matter unaddressed. Hours later, a senior administration official issued a brief statement saying there was no consensus within the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack.

With all the murky signals, Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed after firing Tomahawks at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians. While his Cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria since the missile strike Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.

The only substantive comment he has made on Twitter about the situation was to defend against critics who asked why the runway at the air base had been left untouched. “The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” he wrote Sunday.

The resulting vacuum has left world leaders and U.S. lawmakers scratching their heads over how the United States will proceed now that it has taken direct action against Assad’s government for the first time in Syria’s 6-year-old civil war.

Tillerson made his comment a day before arriving in Moscow to confront Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, over the Kremlin’s support for Assad. There had been some expectation that Tillerson would meet with President Vladimir Putin. But Russia announced Monday that Putin would be unavailable — another sign of the Kremlin’s growing displeasure.

Although Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has known Putin for years, he will be the first secretary of state not to meet with a Russian president in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports.

On Sunday, Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and he accused Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.

European countries, which had been deeply uneasy with the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to foreign policy and its potential willingness to forgive Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine, welcomed the strike on Syria and Tillerson’s reference to humanitarian issues’ guiding strategy.

“There is overwhelming support in what the U.S. did,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said Monday, “signaling that we will not tolerate the barbaric use of chemical weapons.”

The foreign ministers of France and Italy have made similar remarks, with Angelino Alfano of Italy saying the U.S. military strike had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and Europe.

Johnson said Europe also supported the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line on Russia, saying Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people.”

Still, the Europeans and others were left to puzzle out Trump’s strategy. Over the weekend, Tillerson suggested that the administration still wanted to stay out of Syria’s war.

“We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”

Yet Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Assad had to go. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she said.

By the time Tillerson met with other foreign ministers from the Group of 7 in Italy on Monday, he seemed to be emphasizing a shift from Trump’s focus on economic nationalism to a foreign policy at least partly defined by humanitarian values.

Tillerson belatedly added a visit to a memorial at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a village near Lucca where 560 people, including children, were massacred by the Nazis during World War II. After the blaring of trumpets and the laying of a wreath at the memorial, Tillerson approached a small news media contingent to make a three-sentence declaration that included the pledge to hold accountable “any and all who commit crimes” against innocent civilians.

But back in Washington, Spicer seemed to return to Trump’s “America first” formulation.

“We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” he said. “It’s our national security first and foremost.”

Asked if Syria fit within that doctrine, he said, “Absolutely.”

Julie Hirschfield Davis contributed to this report.

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