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Hillary Clinton was involved in a decision as secretary of state that "was laughed at all over the world," Donald Trump said at the second debate between the two presidential candidates.
Trump, referring to a "line in the sand," brought up President Barack Obama’s so-called "red line" in Syria: That Obama would change his calculus on armed intervention in Syria if dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Assad later used chemical weapons, crossing the red line, but Obama did not intervene with force.
Clinton "was there as secretary of state with the so-called line in the sand," Trump said, his statement abruptly cut off by Clinton.
"No I wasn’t. I was gone," she said. "I hate to interrupt you, but at some point we need to do some fact-checking."
Trump replied, "You were in total contact with the White House, and perhaps sadly Obama probably still listened to you, I don’t think he’ll be listening to you very much anymore. Obama draws the line in the sand. It was laughed at all over the world what happened."
Since there was a call for some fact-checking, we decided to find out who’s correct on the timeline — Clinton or Trump.
Basically, Obama drew the chemical weapons "red line" in August 2012 when Clinton was secretary of state. But by the time the White House confirmed that Assad crossed it about a year later, she had been replaced by John Kerry.
August 2012: Obama draws the "red line."
Obama first made the "red line" comment Aug. 20, 2012, when a reporter asked Obama whether he envisioned using the military in Syria, "if simply for nothing else, the safekeeping of the chemical weapons."
Obama responded (emphasis added):
"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
At this point, Clinton was secretary of state. She endorsed Obama’s position, specifically using the phrase "red line" in a Dec. 3 2012, press conference in Prague.
"We have made our views very clear. This is a red line for the United States," she told a reporter. "I'm not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against his own people, but suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur."
"Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria," she said after a NATO meeting two days later. "And so as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue, we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account."
Rumors that Syria was mobilizing chemical weapons also began to emerge in Clinton’s last months in office, in early 2013. In a January 2013 interview, Clinton reiterated that "the use of chemical weapons, President Obama has said, is a red line."
Clinton left her position as secretary of state in February 2013.
August 2013: White House "assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack."
Assad’s regime killed more than 1,400 people in this chemical weapons attack in the city of Damascus.
Despite his earlier "red line" comment, Obama chose not to strike Syria and instead looked to Congress to authorize force. Eventually, through a deal with Russia, Syria handed over its chemical weapons, and no strikes were fired against Assad for crossing the red line.
Clinton had handed the position of secretary of state over to Kerry in February 2013. However, Clinton publicly commented on the deal with Russia on Sept. 9, 2013, amid the negotiation process.
She endorsed the White House position, saying, "If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step."
"This discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria’s stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government, as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia," Clinton added, possibly alluding to the "red line" comment.
She met with Obama earlier that day and had spoken with high-level members of his staff multiple times in the preceding days, according to Washington Post reports. She reiterated her support for Obama’s position on Syria again at a second speech that week.
Trump’s phrasing — and the fact that Clinton interrupted him — makes it difficult to know exactly what time frame he’s referring to: Either when Obama first announced the red line or when Assad crossed the red line.
However, Clinton was involved in both campaigns. Even though she was no longer part of the Obama administration when it confirmed Syria had crossed the "red line," Clinton participated in the discussions about how to respond. And she advocated for Obama’s position publicly.
So when Trump said, "You were in total contact with the White House and perhaps, sadly, Obama probably still listened to you" — he had a point.
Clinton said, "I was gone" when there was a red line against Syria.
Clinton was secretary of state in August 2012 when Obama said if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons, that would cross a "red line" after which Obama would consider using military force in Syria. In the months following that statement, Clinton reiterated Obama’s position, using the phrase "red line."
A year later, August 2013, the White House confirmed Syria had crossed this "red line." By this point, Clinton had left the State Department months earlier. However, in the days following that revelation, Clinton met with Obama and his staff several times and publicly endorsed the White House’s position on how to respond.
The claim has an element of truth, but leaves out critical information that would give a different impression. We rate her claim Mostly False.
Washington Post, "Hillary Clinton backs Obama on Syria strikes," Sept. 9, 2013
Washington Post, "National Security Removal of Syrian chemical arsenal was result of unprecedented collaboration," Aug. 30, 2013
The Atlantic, "The Obama Doctrine," April 2016
CBS DC, "Jeb Bush Awards Hillary Clinton Liberty Medal," Sept. 11, 2013
State Department, Remarks With Czech Republic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Dec. 3, 2012
State Department, Press Availability Following Ministerial Meetings at NATO Headquarters, Dec. 5, 2012
State Department, Interview With Cynthia McFadden of ABC, Jan. 29, 2013
White House, Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps, Aug. 20, 2012
White House, Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, Aug. 30, 2013
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