The White House on Tuesday condemned a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria — and placed the blame for it squarely at the previous administration's feet.
The alleged attack on civilians in the Syrian province of Idlib was documented through videos and pictures showing civilians struggling to breathe that quickly spread across the internet. Doctors inside the country told BuzzFeed News that the symptoms people presented bore all the signs of an attack — and one using a chemical stronger than chlorine, the substance of choice under the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2014.
In 2013, the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack using sarin gas against civilians outside of Damascus, crossing a "red-line" that then-President Barack Obama had laid out. A military strike was announced and aborted after a lack of support from Congress and the public, opening the door for a deal with Russia to have Assad hand over his chemical weapons stockpile.
"Today's chemical attack in Syria against innocent people including women and children is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world," President Donald Trump said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. "These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution."
"President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing," Trump's statement continued. "The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act."
The statement mirrored one issued by White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier in the day.
Soon after the statement's release, tweets from Trump began circulating highlighting his past admonition of Obama for getting involved in Syria.
A senior State Department official, on a planned call on defeating ISIS, called Tuesday's attack "reprehensible" and said it was "clearly a war crime" if the evidence gathered proved an attack had occurred. The official also blamed Russia and Iran, which have cooperated with the Assad regime to help keep them in power.
"The issue is their apparent inability and unwillingness to hold the regime to account," the official said. "As the facts emerge of what transpired here, I think they'll have a lot to answer for."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement of his own echoing that sentiment, calling out Russia and Iran and saying Assad operates "with brutal, unabashed barbarism."
But those statements, and the president's, clash with a tone that other Trump administration officials had presented in recent days. While the Obama administration infamously declared that the Syrian president must step down and that he had been a factor in ISIS's rise, the Trump team has opted to accede to the "political reality" in the country, as US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday.
In short: Assad is a problem, but ISIS is the core focus of the US policy towards Syria. While neither Obama nor Trump proved themselves keen to use the full weight of American might to remove Assad from power, Obama was willing to suggest he might take action. Trump has seemingly dropped any pretense of doing so, despite his statement's declaration that the attack "cannot be ignored." It is also unclear what Tillerson mean when he said that Assad "must be held accountable."
At the UN, the United States for the first time under the Trump administration holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council. Haley, soon after finishing her first time chairing a meeting of the Council, announced that she was granting France and the United Kingdom's request for an emergency meeting, to be held on Wednesday morning.
Sigrid Kaag, who led the joint UN–Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission to verify the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, denied a request for comment. She directed BuzzFeed News to the United Nations and the OPCW. The OPCW, meanwhile, put out a statement.
Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of US policy in Syria, told CNN "we've seen this movie before" and called the US's inaction "disgraceful." The US military, meanwhile, said it was currently unable to provide independent confirmation of the attack.
Syria itself is showing no signs of mending itself once the seven-year long civil war comes to an eventual end. Political negotiations between the Syrian government and rebel forces remain at a standstill, even as the US military and allied forces plan for an eventual assault on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS's territory.
Nancy Youseff contributed reporting from Washington.