Washington (CNN)As President Donald Trump stood before television cameras on Friday to announce he'd ordered a sustained campaign of strikes in Syria, his new national security adviser John Bolton was standing a few paces away, reading along.
Trump pushes ahead with Syria strikes amid broader tumult
After every line of text, the mustachioed Bolton -- who was concluding his first week on the job -- would glance up at the President, who was adhering closely to the script scrolling before him in a teleprompter.
It was a speech that required careful calibration. All week, as Trump has recalled with horror to aides the images of ashen, lifeless Syrians -- victims of the suspected chemical attack outside Damascus -- he has pressed for decisive action, according to US and Western officials familiar with the discussions.
Early in the week, administration officials rushed to formulate plans after it became clear that French President Emmanuel Macron was prepared to take action in Syria. Trump insisted that France not act before the US, lest he be upstaged by his younger French counterpart, with whom he's fostered a close friendship after their relationship began with a tense, white-knuckled handshake in Brussels.
Meanwhile, talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May were complicated by her expected struggle to gain parliamentary approval for strikes, though, ultimately, she declined to go to MPs for permission after Trump pressed for a global coalition.
Top military officials urged caution, citing the potential for igniting a wider conflict in a combustible part of the world, people familiar with the discussions said.
What Trump ultimately announced during his five-minute long address appeared, in his telling, to be the muscular response he had demanded. With neither explicit approval from Congress nor a firm stated view of future US involvement in Syria, Trump announced to the world that he was "prepared to sustain" a coordinated campaign of strikes on Syrian targets "until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents."
But what actually transpired in Syria during the early morning darkness seemed closer to the careful strategy advocated by his military brass. Asked about Trump's description of a sustained campaign, Defense Secretary James Mattis downplayed the prospects of prolonged American engagement.
"Right now, this is a one-time shot and I believe it sent a very strong message," he said from the Pentagon briefing room.
The decision was days in the making and came only after sometimes-heated disagreements between Trump and top military advisers, according to senior officials. Whatever its scale, the move plunged the US further into the multi-sided Syrian civil war, even as Trump presses his aides to orchestrate a swift withdrawal of American troops from the country.
It was evident early on that Trump was intent on taking action to punish the Syrian regime for its actions. He declared on Twitter Wednesday that US missiles "will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' " And he insisted privately he be able to make good on his promise, even as he sought to obscure his plans in public, the officials familiar with the deliberations said.
Amid the scramble, Pentagon officials, led by Mattis, cautioned that a blanket bombing campaign could risk drawing the US into conflict with Russia and Iran, who back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, officials said.
During a Thursday meeting with Trump and top military officials, Trump grew upset at the options being presented, according to people familiar with the conversations. He insisted he wanted to go further than the limited strikes he ordered at this time last year, which did little to prevent the Assad regime from attacking civilians again which deadly chemicals.
His views were bolstered by Bolton and US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who argued that any action must go well past the limited set of strikes Trump ordered from Mar-a-Lago last April, a senior administration official said.
On Friday, Mattis told reporters the strikes doubled what Trump ordered a year ago. And his counterpart, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, insisted that US officials were in touch with their Russian counterparts over the so-called "deconfliction channel" between the US al-Udeid airbase in Qatar and Russia's Hmeymim military base in Syria.
Trump's deliberations this week over how to respond to the deadly chemical attack occurred at a tenuous moment for his presidency, with the special counsel's investigation winding its way further into the President's inner circle and many of Trump's trusted aides rushing for the exits.
The President's mood has rarely been more sour, people close to him say. He's spent extended portions of each day in fits of anger. He's responded rapidly on Twitter to developments in the increasingly complex tornado involving his personal attorney Michael Cohen, whose office and hotel room were raided by the FBI on Monday.
On Friday, in the heat of an ongoing debate over the scale of US strikes, Trump phoned Cohen to check in, a person familiar with the call said.
News of the phone call did little to bolster protestations from Trump's aides that he remained squarely focused on the Syria matter. Those aides have noted the President's daily calls with American allies and the meetings he's convened of national security officials to weigh his options.
One official insisted Trump had been spending upwards of fifteen hours a day focused on the Syria matter. Another close adviser to the President maintained that even members of the President's legal team have struggled to gain access to him as he mulled his options for responding.
But in many ways, Trump's own actions belie any suggestion Syria was the only topic on his mind. Even in the hours before the strikes were announced, Trump's legal team -- including Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow -- were spotted by staffers in the West Wing walking toward the Oval Office.
On Monday -- only a day after the chemical attack -- it was evident the raid of his personal attorney's office was consuming Trump's attention during a meeting with top military officials. As Mattis and other top officials cast their eyes downward and assumed clenched-jawed expressions, Trump tore into his attorney general, deputy attorney general and former FBI director in a strident, partisan attack.
He eventually came back around to Syria -- "we're making a decision as to what we do," he said -- but it was clear the encroaching special counsel investigation was consuming his attention.
The next morning, the White House announced Trump had scrapped a planned trip to South America to monitor the response to Syria -- a decision Bolton argued for in his first days on the job. Vice President Mike Pence traveled in his place.
On Friday evening, as Pence was midway through a banquet dinner at the Grand National Theater in the Peruvian capital Lima, his aides abruptly rushed to extricate him from the crowd of leaders to speed back to his hotel. It was there that he phoned leaders in Congress to advise them of the strikes, moments before Trump spoke.
Before long, he was back at the banquet. Trump, meanwhile, retreated to his third floor residence to watch coverage of the strikes on television.