Suck-up interview leaves Syria questions unanswered

By Janine Zacharia | April 13, 2017

In his interview that aired Wednesday on Fox Business Network, President Trump described how he decided to bomb a Syrian air base during dinner with the Chinese president:

“How did that come about that it’s happening right then, because right there, you’re saying, a reminder, here’s who the superpower in the world is, right?” TV journalist Maria Bartiromo asks.

“You have no idea how many people want to hear the answer to this,” Trump brags, seeming to delight in the confusion regarding his authorization of American military force in a complex war.

“When did you tell him?” Bartiromo interjects. “Before dessert or what?”

Trump agrees to say, “only because you’ve treated me so good for so long.” It was over the most “beautiful piece of chocolate cake. … So what happens is I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq.’’

“To Syria,” she corrects.

In my career as a diplomatic and foreign correspondent, I have had the opportunity to interview many senior U.S. officials. It is essential to be prepared, focused on the most essential questions, and unafraid to ask the toughest ones.

Bartiromo appeared far more focused on endearing herself to Trump and on the optics of the dinner with Xi Jinping than on her core purpose — clarifying U.S. policy toward Syria after the first U.S. attack on a regime target since the war began in 2011.

With administration officials — and Trump himself — making wildly conflicting statements about the significance of the strike and U.S.-Syria policy more broadly, it is hard to establish any kind of ground truth. What this interview reminded us is that interviewing a president is a great responsibility, especially when the topic is new U.S. military intervention in a hostile civil war. It shouldn’t be treated lightly. And it should be performed by the most skilled journalists who know, through serious questioning and follow-ups, how to hold leaders accountable.

And here are a few things we still don’t know:

What are U.S. aims in Syria and how will we work to achieve them?

Will the U.S. work to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad?

Trump said we’re “not going into Syria.” But the U.S. struck a regime air base and American Special Forces are already battling the Islamic State inside Syria. What does “not going in” mean?

The day after the strike on Sharyat Air Base, the Syrian air force took off from there and dropped bombs on the same towns that were hit just days before with chemical weapons. The U.S. strike didn’t significantly diminish Syrian capabilities. How can this be described as a success?

Trump expressed horror at the use of chemical weapons, but also said: “When they drop barrel bombs and bombs of any kind right on top of a civilian population, that’s the worst thing.” In what instances will the U.S. again use military force?

Eric Trump told the London Telegraph, his sister Ivanka “has influence. I’m sure she said, ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’ My father will act in times like that.” Was it Ivanka or Trump himself who was moved by the horrifying images?

Eric also said Trump’s strike proved he won’t be “pushed around” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supports Assad. Was Trump’s real objective to create that impression?

Bartiromo didn’t get us the answers we need as citizens. Perhaps, the next journalist granted an interview with Trump will.

Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, is professor of journalism at Stanford University.