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Week In Politics: Syria, Gorsuch, White House Infighting And The 'Nuclear Option'


And the airstrikes in Syria marked yet another packed week in politics. The president, of course, reversed his campaign promise on Syria. The U.S. Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court but only after overturning a hollowed, old - forgive me - a hallowed, old practice of that chamber. To talk about the week in politics, we're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much for being with us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: President Trump had campaigned against exactly this kind of intervention. How did he come to this decision?

LIASSON: Well, the simple answer is he saw some pretty horrible images on television, but you're right. This is a big, big pivot. In 2013, Trump called on President Obama not to launch, quote, "stupid airstrikes" to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. And his campaign was based on not getting involved in Middle East wars, but he did do a big pivot. Just a few days ago, his secretary of state had suggested it was no longer the goal of the U.S. to get Assad out. Some people thought that emboldened Assad to use chemical weapons, thinking there would be no repercussions.

But then the president had a very human reaction to those pictures. He said they changed his attitude. We know he operates on instinct. He says he's very flexible. His aides insist this wasn't just impulsive. It was strategic. The U.S. can't normalize the use of chemical weapons. But the other incentive is that he was able to look decisive compared to President Obama, who he says was weak and dithering in exactly the same situation.

SIMON: Any indication, Mara, as to where U.S. policy goes from here?

LIASSON: That is the big question. We don't know if this was just a one-off. Was it just meant to show that Assad can't use chemical weapons without a reaction? This strike impeded, but it didn't put an end to Assad's ability to use these weapons. Planes are still flying out of that airfield that was bombed. He also has other airfields.

And the big question is - is there a long-range strategy to get more involved in the Syrian civil war or to try to end it diplomatically? When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about this, he said don't extrapolate from this to think there's going to be a change in our policy towards Syria. Well, what exactly did that mean?

We also have questions about how Iran and Hezbollah will react. They're big Assad backers. Will they escalate in order to try to draw Trump further into the war? What about the Russians? They stood aside and let this happen without reacting. Secretary of state is going to Russia next week. This has certainly set back Russian-American relations, which Trump had promised to improve. There are so many questions about that, and the biggest one is really - what is Trump's foreign policy? Is he an isolationist or an interventionist? That's just not clear right now.

SIMON: Speaking of consternation and conflict, let me ask you about what might be going on in the White House staff. We keep seeing that there is a struggle going on within the president's close advisers, but Steve Bannon, in particular, who is said to represent the base that elected Mr. Trump, and then what I'll call the Wall-Street-Manhattan-real-estate wing, which are some members of his family and economic advisers. What do you know about this?

LIASSON: Well, there's a lot of palace intrigue - who's in and who's out. Steve Bannon was removed from his position on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. He's the first political adviser who'd ever been given a seat on the Principals Committee, so that kind of symbolized the trend that Steve Bannon's influence is perhaps being curtailed.

But I think this is really more than just palace intrigue - who's in and who's out. The big question is - what is Trumpism? And what kind of president Donald Trump is - that's not clear right now. Is he the Steve Bannon nationalist, post-partisan populist, or is he a more traditional Republican, Wall-Street-oriented president like his son-in-law Jared Kushner?

And, you know, in the reports of the internal squabbles, the top political adviser Steve Bannon, who was the former chairman of Breitbart, is reported have derided Kushner and the others as Democrats. Now, that - those are really fighting words for Bannon, but they happen to be true because Kushner was a liberal Democrat. So was Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs executive who's now the top economic adviser. And it really shows you that as we head to the hundred-day mark - just how up for grabs the direction of this administration and the identity of this president really is.

SIMON: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks so much for being with us again.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SIMON: Talk to you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.