Things move fast in President Trump’s Washington. You can hardly keep up with the news. Unless, that is, you are waiting for Trump to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government. Then it requires a great deal of patience. And the world has taken notice.
After days of delays that raised eyebrows at home and abroad, Trump finally acknowledged an attack that the United States’ closest ally, the UK, says bears the hallmarks of Moscow’s involvement, using a banned military-grade nerve agent on British soil to try to kill a former Russian spy and his daughter. Russia denies any involvement and Trump seemed disinclined to challenge Russia’s claim. But on Thursday, speaking in the Oval Office, Trump said “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind it,” yielding to the growing pressure to call out Russia by name.
As with all matters relating to Russia, Trump had been mysteriously reluctant to take any position or make any statement that might be construed as hostile to Putin. Trump has gushed with praise for the Russian President, even condemning the United States rather than criticize Putin, and looking downright uncomfortable whenever forced to challenge him. That was inescapably visible in his slow response to the nerve agent attack. But Trump does not operate in a vacuum. He’s not a dictator, and he came under withering criticism for his reticence.
It is particularly striking that Trump held out on criticizing Russia as long as he did, considering that he — and everyone — knows that his relationship with the Russians is under the microscope. His entire presidency may well hinge on what investigators find regarding those ties. He knows how dangerous it is to leave the wrong impression about Russia. Even so, the President, who finds no adjective too offensive, no threat too outlandish when dealing with others, continues to handle Russia with kid gloves.
The headlines around the world highlighted the curious phenomenon in the aftermath of the March 4 assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.
A week after the two were found unconscious, slumped on a bench in the placid city of Salisbury, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a dramatic address to Parliament. She confirmed the suspicions that had surrounded the case from the beginning, fueled by the long trail of dead Putin critics — including the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent who fled to Britain and became a UK citizen before Russian agents killed him, poisoning him with radioactive polonium, according to a British Commission of Inquiry. That commission found “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian State responsibility for the killing.”
This time, May said, British specialists concluded that the would-be killer used a Russian-made nerve agent of the Novichok type developed by the Soviet Union for use against NATO forces. It was, she said, “highly likely,” that the Kremlin was to blame.
The same day, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders condemned the attack, but when she was asked three times about Russia, declined to name it in the case.
On Tuesday, Trump hedged, saying that it might be Russia. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” he added.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had gone far ahead of the President, with sharp words against Moscow in an interview and in a formal condemnation statement, calling Russia, “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of its citizens.”
Just hours later, Trump fired him. Headline writers in the UK and beyond noticed and made a connection. A typical headline, like this one from the Mirror, announced: “Donald Trump Sacks Rex Tillerson a Day After the Secretary of State Blasts Russia Over Spy Poisoning.”
In perhaps the most embarrassing moment of all, a Russian media personality, journalist Olga Skabeeva declared on Russian state television, “Yesterday Tillerson supported Theresa May in her ‘highly likely’ Russian accusation. And Trump immediately fired him. Trump is ours!”
The British media highlighted Trump’s attempt to evade the question of Russian responsibility. German and British news reports noted how the White House managed to condemn the attack without mentioning Moscow. And at home, what had been a continuing rumble of criticism over the administration’s failure to enact Russian sanctions — which were approved almost unanimously by Congress — started to turn into a roar of condemnation of Trump’s failure to fully back an ally who had just been attacked. The criticism did not come only from partisan Democrats.
The highly respected former under-secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to NATO, suggested the nerve weapon attack was a pivotal test for the President. “Judgement day for Donald Trump,” he wrote on Twitter. “Finally criticize Putin? Act like a leader of the West?”
At long last, Trump spoke. His Oval Office words on Thursday, while not quite filled with the venom he reserves for the media or for Muslim terrorists, marked a tactical shift in his position.
There is little question that the White House has made a decision to change its stance and try to dispel questions about whether Trump is able or willing to challenge Russia when circumstances warrant.
Trump’s statement came just after the announcement that the administration is finally enacting those long-delayed sanctions imposed by Congress in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The White House had missed the congressionally ordered deadline by a month and a half.
In addition, and also simultaneously, the United States joined the leaders of France, Germany and Britain in signing a statement that speaks with a single voice about the Salisbury attack, concurring that “it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack” and, in fact, that “there is no plausible alternative explanation.” It calls on Russia to provide a full disclosure of its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and address the questions raised by the UK government about the attack.
Trump’s newfound willingness to defy Russia is a welcome development for the security of the country and the NATO alliance. But the unexplained reluctance that preceded it only adds to the cloud that still hangs over his presidency. Why does Trump, the brusque, tell-it-like-it-is leader, turn into a pussycat when it comes to Putin?