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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump stunned his staff back on March 29 when he said spontaneously during an infrastructure event in Ohio: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”  That was big (but short-lived) news — within five days, Trump had backed off any insistence on an immediate withdrawal.

What we're hearing: It turns out there’s an incredible backstory to that moment that took place a few hundred miles away in the White House.

We’re told by someone who heard the remarks directly that just before Trump took the podium at 2 p.m. at a union training site in Richfield, Ohio, there was this fascinating exchange back in the West Wing: 

  • White House chief of staff John Kelly was watching walk-up TV coverage in the outer office of his suite.
  • Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin sidled across the hall and stood in the doorway.
  • Indicating the president, Kelly said: “He swore to me that he wouldn’t announce anything on Syria.”
  • Hagin replied: “Well, we’ve heard promises like that before. We really won’t know till he’s done talking.”
  • Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, said: “I think he knows he can’t fuck us on this.”
  • Hagin cocked his head — he'd heard that before. 

Why it matters: The exchange (which Kelly and Hagin denied through a White House aide, but which was recounted for us by an impeccable source) illustrates the challenges for the staff of a president who relishes going off-script.

One source close to the White House explains the dynamic:

  • "The people who thrive in Trumpworld are the ones who commit to following his lead, even if that means turning on a dime."
  • "All any adviser can do is give their recommendation, then let the boss call the play."
  • "Trump recoils from overly structured decision-making on someone else's timeline. He relies heavily on his gut and sometimes makes snap decisions in the moment, when everything suddenly clicks for him. That can even take place while he's giving remarks and feeling the energy of the crowd."
  • "It's part of the reason he's so dialed into [his base's] mood, ... when everyone else seems to miss it until after the fact."

The White House aide, denying such a conversation, said Trump's remarks that day were consistent with his previous statements about defeating ISIS — and that his non-traditional approach is part of his strength.

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Go deeper

1 hour ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: It means former military members and officials from the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported the news.

2 hours ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.

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