The Words Trump Refuses to Speak

For the most verbally belligerent president in history, Trump’s comments about Russia’s nerve-agent attack have been conspicuously weak.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

It’s as if the nation’s Russia policy is being made by the world’s balkiest teenager.

Today, after a week of resistance, President Trump at least delivered something close to a definitive statement about Russian culpability for the March 4 nerve-agent attack on British soil. Asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl whether he could now accept that Russia was to blame, Trump answered: “It looks like it. I spoke with the prime minister and we are in deep discussions. A very sad situation. Something that should never ever happen, and we are taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”

That’s a big advance from the president’s previous position, offered March 13 before he departed for California: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

On the other hand, Trump’s words remain considerably less robust than those of Jeremy Corbyn, the notoriously neutralist leader of the British Labour Party. He too has been hemming and hawing, but on March 15 Corbyn told the BBC: “The source of this weapon, which appears to be Russia, either from the state or from a rogue element of the state, must be brought to justice. This is a serious issue and has to be dealt with.”

“Brought to justice” is stronger language than Donald Trump has yet used—and when the president of the United States lags behind Corbyn, something strange is afoot upon the earth.

Midmorning on March 15, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against 19 named individuals and five Russian organizations. The sanctions would freeze any assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and generally prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with those who were listed. (The new sanctions list substantially overlaps with the 13 individuals and three organizations indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.)

But the penalty seems hardly proportionate to the behavior the U.S. is protesting. Here’s the Treasury statement:

Today’s action counters Russia’s continuing destabilizing activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 U.S. election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks, including the NotPetya attack, a cyber-attack attributed to the Russian military on February 15, 2018 in statements released by the White House and the British Government. This cyber-attack was the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history. The attack resulted in billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia, and the United States, and significantly disrupted global shipping, trade, and the production of medicines. Additionally, several hospitals in the United States were unable to create electronic records for more than a week.

Pervert a U.S. election—the worst cyber attack in our history—and in return, in the words of one sanctions expert interviewed by Axios, “Good luck getting your Adobe Acrobat upgrade.”

Over the past few days, there have been some tough words about Russia from individuals within the Trump administration, not only from the fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but also National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. A statement issued in the president’s name, jointly with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, also sounded strong. “This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law.” But that of course is a staff product, and its clarity casts an even longer shadow over this least mealy mouthed president’s personal reluctance to speak anything equivalently forceful.

The most verbally belligerent president in history—who has abusive things to say about allies like Japan, South Korea, and Canada—cannot summon up any harsher adjective for a nerve attack on NATO soil than “sad.” Today’s tentative words and belated actions are already being hailed by Trump partisans as proof that at last the president has gotten tough. The Republican National Committee released a statement today hailing Trump’s “TOUGH ON RUSSIA RECORD.”

The balance of forces within the Trump administration apparently does not forbid all criticism of Russia or Vladimir Putin. Nor does the president veto all actions against Russia. While the president still refuses to implement the sanctions voted on to punish Russia from intervening in the 2016 election, he has allowed other sanctions to go forward and has sold lethal weapons to Ukraine.

But if it’s not nothing, it’s also true that it has taken extraordinary pressure to move Trump even the small interval he has moved. It’s progress, and it’s welcome. But it does not begin to dispel the haunting doubts about why Trump so hesitates to condemn Russia and Putin—not nearly.