Even before President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against an airbase in Syria on Thursday night, the U.S. response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons was overshadowing Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago.
As Air Force One headed to Palm Beach International Airport in the afternoon, Trump told reporters that “I guess something should happen” in response to what Trump called the “disgrace to humanity” in Syria.
Meanwhile, on the ground at PBIA, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed Xi and then held a news conference in which he condemned Assad and urged Russia to “consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime.”
The missile strikes began a few hours later as Trump dined with Xi at Mar-a-Lago.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children…Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said later in a brief statement after the Chinese delegation left for the evening.
“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world,” Trump said.
After arriving separately at PBIA in the afternoon, Xi and Trump met for the first time at 5:10 p.m. at Mar-a-Lago.
It was not immediately clear Thursday night whether the Syrian action would alter plans for Trump and Xi to hold meetings and a “working lunch” Friday before Xi departs.
Thursday’s plans also called for first lady Melania Trump and Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, to visit a local school on Friday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Air Force One en route to PBIA. Spicer didn’t name the school and school district officials declined to comment.
Xi arrived at PBIA at about 1:30 p.m. on an Air China plane and, after being greeted by Tillerson, went to the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa before heading to Mar-a-Lago. Trump arrived at PBIA on Air Force One about 90 minutes later, accompanied by Melania Trump and daughter Ivanka Trump and her children.
It’s the sixth time Trump has visited Palm Beach since becoming president 11 weeks ago.
Trump’s previous visits have drawn demonstrators — including an estimated 3,000 who marched against him in February — but the U.S. president was overshadowed by Xi on the protest front on Thursday.
Hundreds of critics of China’s human rights record and its treatment of Tibet and the Falun Gong religious group gathered outside the Eau Palm Beach, where pro-Xi “greeters” in red T-shirts also assembled. Three people were arrested in Manalapan for trying to run into the road ahead of Xi’s motorcade, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said.
Before Xi’s arrival, hundreds of Vietnamese protesters marched against the Chinese president on Southern Boulevard, where they were countered by pro-Xi demonstrators who arrived on buses. Anti-Xi protesters also gathered on Bingham Island near Mar-a-Lago before Xi’s arrival.
Trump and Xi have a weighty agenda that includes trade, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
But it was clear throughout the day Thursday that Syria was weighing heavily on Trump and U.S. officials.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One.
“What Assad did is terrible. What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes and it shouldn’t have happened. And it shouldn’t be allowed to happen … I don’t want to say what I’m going to be doing with respect to Syria,” Trump said when asked about specific actions he might take.
Tillerson, after greeting Xi at PBIA, also condemned Assad and addressed Russia’s support for him.
“There is no doubt in our minds, and the information we have supports that Syria, the Syrian regime under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, are responsible for this attack. And further, I think it is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson added: “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
Tillerson said the U.S. hopes “to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”
Before the latest chemical weapons attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on March 30 that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
Trump’s views also appear to have changed.
In 2013, after Assad used chemical weapons and as former President Barack Obama considered responding with military strikes, Trump tweeted that there was “no upside and tremendous downside” to military action in Syria. In Miami the week before the 2016 election, Trump accused Hillary Clinton of wanting “to start a shooting war in Syria in conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. Frankly, it could lead to World War III and she has no sense.”
Staff writers Eliot Kleinberg, Andrew Marra and Jorge Milian contributed to this story.