During a brief Q-and-A with reporters at the White House on Tuesday, President Trump was asked to respond to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim that Russia was responsible for the poisoning and attempted murder of a former spy and his daughter on British soil.
Trump went to great lengths to avoid pinning blame on the Putin regime, saying, “we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be” — but only if “we agree” with the facts.
“As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” he said.
Facts are not typically things that are open for agreement or disagreement — they just are. But five words Trump used in his statement — “if we agree with them” — leave open the possibility that the White House may not ultimately “agree” with May that the poisoning was “an unlawful use of force” by the Putin regime.
Trump’s comments came a day after Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders bent over backward during a White House briefing to avoid pinning blame for the attack on Russia.
“Look, we’ve been monitoring the incident closely — take it very seriously,” she said. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizen on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible.”
But as a reporter noted, Sanders never mentioned Russia at all while she read a statement condemning the attack.
“Right now, we are standing with our UK allies — I think they are still working through some of the details of that,” Sanders said, prompting the reporter to point out that May had already told members of parliament it is “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack.
“Like I just said, we stand with our ally and we certainly fully support them and are ready if we can be of any assistance of them,” Sanders reiterated, before moving on to another question.
Trump’s Q-and-A with reporters came on the heels of his firing of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — a move that was announced just hours after Tillerson broke with the administration’s line and condemned Russia for the attack.
As he’s now doing with regard to the poisoning, Trump has repeatedly refused to condemn Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Asked about what lessons he has learned about Russian interference during a news conference last Tuesday, Trump responded by questioning the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus conclusion — including ones offered publicly by his hand-picked officials — that the Putin regime was behind hacks and influence operations meant to help him win the presidency.
“Probably there was meddling from other countries, maybe other individuals,” he said, echoing the infamous comment he made during one of the presidential debates about how a “guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds” may have been responsible for Democratic hacks, not Russia.
During a subsequent interview with MSNBC, Russian President Vladimir Putin used Trump’s talking point to deny Russian involvement, saying whoever was responsible for the hacks might “actually [be] working for some kind of American company. Perhaps one of them used to work for one of the candidates. I have no idea, these are not my problems.”