WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump strode directly, with purpose, to the podium.
“My fellow Americans,” he began, “a short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
Sending American troops into harm’s way is by definition the most “presidential” act a commander in chief can take. Still, the solemn announcement, delivered in one of the nation’s most distinguished settings, was a notable moment of conformity for a president who has scoffed at the conventional.
The operation had been widely expected, the whole world seemingly anticipating action since the president’s Wednesday morning tweet that missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'”
But on Friday afternoon, nearly a week after the president had first promised a decision within 24 to 48 hours, the White House maintained that Trump hadn’t yet settled on a course of action.
That didn’t quell the anticipation that had been building for days. The likely window for an operation was well-known: nighttime in Syria, or the evening in Washington, seven hours behind.
The first inkling that something was up on came when the White House sent word to the cadre of reporters who continuously follow the president that they might be staying late Friday night. The early buzz: that Trump would be making a foray to his nearby hotel for dinner.
White House aides put on a determined show of normalcy. Some White House staffers were seen drinking and socializing on the balcony of the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Other aides were seen grabbing their bags and leaving, ostensibly for the weekend.
But as the sun set, it grew increasingly clear that something more than an off-campus dinner was afoot. Usually chatty aides were hushed, offices empty, doors closed.
Keith Kellogg, chief of staff to the National Security Council, was spotted by a throng of reporters and hurried away, insisting he knew nothing.
Reporters were told to be prepared to move at 8:30 p.m. — destination unknown.
On another continent, Vice-President Mike Pence unexpectedly departed from the kickoff of an international summit in Lima, Peru, his motorcade whisking him off to his hotel.
Pence had been tasked with informing congressional leaders about the airstrikes, according to Jarrod Agen, his deputy chief of staff.
Pence spoke to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi before Trump’s speech. Pence was unable to reach Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer before the speech but spoke with him later in the evening.
At about the same time, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who had made a show of leaving the building earlier in the day, reappeared. She led a small group of reporters into a hallway, where she announced, in hushed tones, that the president would be delivering an address to the nation, at 9:01:30 p.m. She urged reporters to keep the announcement quiet until the president began speaking, insisting the safety of American troops was at stake.
Reporters were then led into the muraled Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor of the Executive Mansion, where the presidential podium and teleprompter were ready.
Trump laid out a joint operation with the forces of France and the U.K. that was meant as retribution for an attack that he said killed dozens, putting the blame squarely on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air,” said the president, who had watched images of the horror play out on cable television. “These are not the actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster.”
While Trump’s decision drew criticism from some corners, his public address stood in stark contrast to the often haphazard, misspelled tweets and off-the-cuff statements that are so common in his presidency. And his stern warning to Russia set aside — at least temporarily — Trump’s unwillingness to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia,” Trump said, “must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace.”
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.