Syria just changed Donald Trump's presidency

Story highlights

  • Healthcare, tax reform and even the Russian investigation are back burner issues now.
  • Presidencies are often shaped by unforeseen events like this one.

(CNN)The presidency you plan for is rarely the presidency you get. Events have a way of outrunning blueprints. Plans change.


That's what happened to Donald Trump's presidency earlier this week when the Syrian government launched a chemical attack against civilians in the northwestern part of the country.
A president and an administration who had advocated a hands-off policy in regards Syria was suddenly authorizing a military strike -- albeit a limited one -- against the Syrian airbase believed to be the launching point for the chemical attacks.
Gone was talk about the Supreme Court confirmation fight over Neil Gorsuch. (He's likely to be confirmed later today.) Gone was chatter about the revivification of healthcare reform. Gone was talk of what Friday's lower-than-expected jobs numbers meant for Trump.
Syria and what the United States does next (if anything) is now the only issue on the front-burner of American politics. How does Syria react? Russia? Was this a targeted one-off or part of a broader campaign that Trump will unveil in the coming days? Will he seek congressional authorization for future strikes? Does he need to?
Those are just a few of the questions this White House and the GOP-led Congress will be grappling with over the comings days and weeks.
Now, if this does wind up being a one-off strike and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems sufficiently cowed into avoiding these sorts of attacks in the future, then this issue will move off the front-burner in weeks not months. The fight over healthcare, tax reform and spending bills will again re-assert their place as the primary topics of debate.
But, even if Trump and his national security advisers view this as a stand-alone strike, it could still have implications well beyond the bombing of an airbase. If Assad reacts defiantly in the face of the bombing, it's hard to see how Trump and his administration could simply walk away. If Russia moves beyond simply their current harsh rhetoric regarding the strike, it will create a massive geopolitical controversy that would need to be addressed.
While Syria, at least in the near-term, will send Trump's presidency down an unexpected path, it will also likely take some attention away from ongoing problems in his administration -- most notably in regards its various ties to Russia.
Tough talk on Russia in regards its enabling of Syria, of course, doesn't change the facts of the ongoing Justice Department investigation into Trump advisers' contacts with Russian intelligence officials. But, with Congress, the public and the media largely focused on the decision to bomb Syria and all of the spidering reverberations from it, there will simply be less attention and coverage given to the investigations.
Ditto today's jobs report, which fell far below expectations. Most observers had expected job growth in March to be in the 175,000 area but it wound up way underperforming with just 98,000 jobs added. Remember that Trump pledged that he alone could make the economy work for everyone again. And that he would do it quickly.
Simply put: When Donald Trump took office, the idea that he would authorize a strike against a Syrian airbase less than 100 days into his presidency would be unimaginable. But events intervene. And presidents need to adjust. The question now is how Trump and the Congress deal with this sudden change of plans.