WASHINGTON — President Trump said today “it’s certainly possible” that Russia, which had forces stationed at the Shayrat airfield determined by U.S. investigators to be the home base of the Su-22s that dropped sarin on a Syrian neighborhood last week, didn’t know that their ally was launching the attack, but it’s “probably unlikely” they were in the dark.
“I know they’re doing investigations into that right now. I would like to think that they didn’t know, but certainly they could have. They were there,” he said. “So we’ll find out.”
At a press conference today with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump said Defense Secretary James Mattis is “looking into” potential Russian involvement. Administration officials told reporters Tuesday that Russians were present at the base but it hadn’t yet been determined if Russia had knowledge of the sarin attack in advance. Per a deconfliction agreement with the Kremlin to bolster air safety with different forces flying over Syria with different targets, the White House notified Russia before 59 Tomahawks were fired at Shayrat in response to the sarin attack. Russia then suspended the deconfliction agreement.
“It was very disappointing to see. It’s disappointing no matter who does it. But when you get into the gases, especially that form, it’s vicious and violent and everybody in this room saw it all too many times over the last three or four days — young children dying, babies dying, fathers holding children in their arms that were dead — dead children,” Trump said.
“It can’t be a worse sight. And it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a butcher. That’s a butcher. So, I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing. And it was very, very successfully done, as you well know.”
Echoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump acknowledged “we may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.”
“Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We’re a very, very strong country. We’re going to see how that all works out,” he said.
“I’ll also see about Putin over a period of time. It’d be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia, and that could happen, and it may not happen; it may be just the opposite. I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody.”
The president added that “right now, the world is a mess.”
“But I think by the time we finish, I think it’s going to be a lot better place to live. And I can tell you that speaking for myself, by the time I’m finished, it’s going to be a lot better place to live in,” he said. “Because right now, it’s nasty.”
Trump changed his campaign-trail tune about the state of NATO, declaring alongside Stoltenberg that he wants to see even a greater role for the alliance.
“I said it was obsolete,” he said. “It’s no longer obsolete.”
Stoltenberg emphasized that “a strong NATO is good for Europe, but a strong NATO is also good for the United States.”
“We agree that allies need to redouble their efforts to meet the pledge we all made in 2014 to invest more in our alliance. It is about spending more on defense. It is about delivering the capabilities we need. And it is about contributing forces to NATO missions and operations,” the secretary general said.
“This means cash, capabilities, and contributions. Fair burden-sharing has been my top priority since taking office. We have now turned a corner,” he added. “In 2016, for the first time in many years, we saw an increase in defense spending across European allies and Canada. A real increase of 3.8 percent, or $10 billion more, for our defense.”
“We are now working to keep up the momentum, including by developing national plans outlining how to make good on what we agreed in 2014. We know that we all need to contribute our fair share. Because we need to keep our nations safe in a more dangerous world.”