World News

Trump, Pressured to Criticize Russia for Poisoning, Leaves Comment to Aides

Posted March 14, 2018 11:52 p.m. EDT
Updated March 14, 2018 11:54 p.m. EDT

ST. LOUIS — Britain’s tough response in holding Russia responsible for a poisoning attack on its soil increased the pressure on President Donald Trump to join with a NATO ally in taking action, even as he has been reluctant to retaliate for Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election in the United States.

Trump, who was visiting Missouri on Wednesday, has not personally addressed the attack since London assigned blame to Russia and left it instead to aides to express public solidarity with Prime Minister Theresa May after she expelled 23 Russian diplomats, canceled high-level contacts and vowed to impose more sanctions.

“This latest action by Russia fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes,” the White House said in a written statement. “The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”

But for whatever reason, Trump avoided saying so personally in public, much as he has generally avoided condemning Russia for its election meddling. He has allowed top advisers to denounce Moscow for its interference in American democracy, but when it comes to his own Twitter posts or comments, he has largely stuck to equivocal language, seemingly reluctant to accept the consensus conclusion of his intelligence agencies and intent on voicing no outrage or criticism of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, for whom he has expressed admiration.

Instead, through early evening, Trump used his Twitter feed to focus on issues like trade, infrastructure, school safety and his complaints that Senate Democrats are obstructing confirmation of his nominees.

His only public comments during the day came at a Boeing plant where he talked about tax cuts.

Critics of both parties pressed him to speak out personally and possibly take action to back up May.

“Where Prime Minister May has taken bold and decisive initial action to combat Russian aggression, our own president has waffled and demurred,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader. “Prime Minister May’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats is the level of response that many Americans have been craving from our own administration.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the United States should consult with NATO allies about “a collective response,” including the possibility of expelling Russian diplomats from Washington and other alliance capitals or freezing more Russian assets. “We ought to make it inescapably clear to Russia that its shadow war will be met with a coordinated response,” he said.

Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Russia policy under President Barack Obama, said Trump should offer a range of assistance to Britain to help investigate the episode, prevent further such attacks on British sovereignty and impose punishment. She added that the United States could cite the suspicious death of Mikhail Y. Lesin, a former Russian minister, in a Washington hotel in 2015, in taking joint action. Investigators concluded that he died from a drunken fall but many remain skeptical.

“Frankly, I believe we should have and could still do this in response to Russia’s election interference in the United States and several other NATO countries,” she said. “We certainly should craft additional sanctions together with the U.K. and the EU to address the assassinations.”

Until Tuesday night, the White House had avoided pointing the finger at Russia for the attack, in which a former Russian spy was poisoned with a nerve agent near his home in southern England.

At her briefing Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, condemned the attack without publicly agreeing with Britain’s assessment that Russia was behind it. The administration’s only tough comment on Russian involvement until Tuesday came from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but he has since been fired.

Trump and May then talked by phone Tuesday night, and the White House issued a statement expressing his solidarity with her. The British readout of the call attributed stronger language to Trump than his own White House statement did, reporting that during their conversation, “President Trump said the U.S. was with the U.K. all the way.”

By Wednesday morning, lower-level U.S. officials joined in backing Britain as it retaliated against Russia.

“Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom,” Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the U.N., said at an emergency Security Council session, calling the poisoning and “an atrocious crime.”

That did not satisfy those who said the president should show personal leadership. “Judgment day for Donald Trump,” R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO and an undersecretary of state under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter. “Will he support Britain unequivocally on the nerve agent attack? Back #NATO sanctions? Finally criticize Putin? Act like a leader of the West?”

Trump has at times grudgingly accepted that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections but usually sounds more determined to rebut any suspicions that his campaign colluded with Moscow or that whatever meddling took place helped him win. He has opted against imposing sanctions beyond those already imposed by Obama despite a new law passed overwhelmingly authorizing further penalties.

Asked about the meddling last week, after Robert Mueller, the special counsel, indicted 13 Russians for spreading disinformation and propaganda in a concerted effort to influence the election, Trump focused on whether it changed the result, and avoided strong words about Moscow.

“Well, the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever,” he said during a news conference with Sweden’s prime minister. “But certainly there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals. And I think you have to be really watching very closely. You don’t want your system of votes to be compromised in any way. And we won’t allow that to happen.”

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said Wednesday that the president took the election meddling seriously and had ordered his administration to take steps to prevent it from happening again.

When asked if the president would eventually opt for retaliation in addition to prevention, Shah implied that Trump already had, but in secret. “There are steps that I’m talking about that we can talk about,” he said. “Then there are steps that we can’t talk about publicly but that our adversaries know that we are engaged in.”