White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointedly avoided saying the word “Russia” on Monday when very specifically questioned about that country’s culpability in the poisoning last week of a former Russian spy with a deadly nerve agent.
British officials have determined that Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a nerve agent developed in Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack. “We must now stand ready to take extensive measures,” May said.
But when asked ― three times ― at a White House press briefing about Russia’s link to the poisoning or any possible repercussions for the country from the U.S., Sanders carefully did not say “Russia” — or otherwise address who may have been responsible for the attack. She characterized it as an “indiscriminate” attack, although British authorities have concluded that Skripal was clearly targeted.
“We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously,” Sanders said. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against U.K. citizens on U.K. soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”
“So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this?” a reporter asked.
“Right now, we are standing with our U.K. ally,” Sanders said again. “I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that.”
Pressed a third time, an annoyed Sanders answered, “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.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed the U.K.’s accusations about Skripal’s poisoning as a “circus show.”
Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned in London in 2006 with radioactive polonium-210, which it’s believed he drank in a cup of tea. A British investigation concluded that his assassination was likely approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
The White House’s extreme reluctance to criticize Russia — ever — has raised increasing concerns, particularly as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates possible collusion by Donald Trump’s campaign in the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Early this month, Putin boasted of his nation’s nuclear capabilities to strike anywhere in the world. A simulated video presented by Putin appeared to depict next-generation nuclear missiles striking Florida. Yet Trump has yet to respond and chose instead to attack actor Alec Baldwin on Twitter the following day.
Former CIA director John Brennan said at the time that he was rattled by Trump’s apparent lack of concern about the video.
“When I hear what Vladimir Putin was saying about the nuclear capabilities he has [and] then the president of the United States is tweeting about Alec Baldwin ... I mean, where is your sense of priorities?” Brennan said on MSNBC. “I think a lot of Americans are looking at what’s happening with a sense of: This is surreal.”