‘Judgment day’: All eyes are on Trump as he grapples with how to respond to the UK nerve agent attack

Donald Trump.

Donald Trump.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

  • Hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a series of harsh measures the UK would take against Russia following its chemical attack on a former spy in the UK, US President Donald Trump has stayed mum.
  • Multiple lower-level US officials, including those in the White House, have publicly come out in support of the UK and condemned Russia.
  • But since briefly acknowledging Russia’s role in the attack Tuesday morning after being pressed by reporters, Trump has not done the same.
  • “All of us who have been around the block find it bizarre that we would not be 100% behind the Brits on this,” said one former diplomat.

Hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the UK will expel 23 Russian diplomats as punishment over the nerve agent attack against a former spy on British soil, President Donald Trump has yet to weigh in.

“This will be the single biggest expulsion for over thirty years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian State has acted against our country,” May said. “For those who wish to do us harm, my message is clear. You are not welcome here.”

May also said that Russians under suspicious would have their assets frozen, and that the British Royal Family and government ministers would not attend the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Meanwhile, Trump’s silence on the matter since he briefly acknowledged the chemical attack Tuesday has been deafening to former US diplomats, many of whom wonder why the US hasn’t been steadfast since the beginning in backing its closest international ally on the matter.

May announced Monday that it was “highly likely” the Russian government ordered an assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who later became a double agent for the UK, in Salisbury, England earlier this month.

Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were both hospitalized and remain in critical condition after being exposed to Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

Shortly after May said Russia was the likely culprit in Skripal’s case, the White House called the attack “reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible” but declined to specifically name Russia, saying the details still needed to be sorted out. That evening, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a more hardline stance, saying Russia was “clearly” behind the attack. Tuesday morning, Trump fired Tillerson via Twitter.

While answering questions about Tillerson’s firing, Trump said of the chemical attack on Skripal, “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” Referring to the UK’s findings, he added, “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”

On Wednesday, after May announced the expulsion of the 23 Russian diplomats – the largest number ejected by the UK since the Cold War -multiple US officials, including the US ambassador to the UN and White House staff, said the US stands in solidarity with the UK.

However, the president himself has not come out and publicly made that clear since his brief mention on Tuesday.

‘Judgment day for Donald Trump’

President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May react during a ceremony at the new NATO headquarters before the start of a summit in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.

President Donald Trump and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May react during a ceremony at the new NATO headquarters before the start of a summit in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

“Judgment day for Donald Trump,” R. Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to NATO, tweeted after the UK announced the measures it was taking to penalize Russia. “Will he support Britain unequivocally on the nerve agent attack? Back #NATO sanctions? Finally criticize Putin? Act like a leader of the West?

Richard Kauzlarich, the former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European Affairs, said the White House should have backed the British from the beginning.

“When you have the British come out as clearly and decisively as they did about who was responsible, the logic and gravity of the situation would require the president to say something in solidarity,” he said.

“It should be almost automatic, especially with an ally this close to the US.”

Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, echoed that view.

“For years, we heard from voices on the political right that America couldn’t possibly confront its adversaries without first clearly naming them,” he said. “And [on Monday], we heard the White House Press Secretary condemn the act but very deliberately skirt the actor, which, by all accounts, appears to be Moscow in this case.”

He added that not only did the US effectively hang the UK “out to dry” by not staying in lockstep with the ally from the start, it was also signaling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that “he is free to act with impunity, including by carrying out deadly acts in the UK.”

The Skripal attack is perhaps the most high-profile case of its kind since former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal Putin critic, was murdered in the UK in November 2006. A public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death found in 2016 that Russian intelligence officials were responsible for the assassination, and that Putin was “probably” behind it.

Moscow scoffed at the UK’s latest accusations linking it to the Skripals’ attempted assassination, dismissing them as a “circus show.” After the UK announced the expulsion of nearly two dozen Russian diplomats on Wednesday, Russia called it a “very serious provocation” and a “hostile action.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s silence since May’s remarks on Wednesday morning mark yet another incident in which the president, “for whatever reason, is not prepared to put Russia on the spot,” Kauzlarich said. “And Russia will draw the conclusion that anybody would: that if this president, for reasons no one can understand, will not criticize Russia on something this blatant, what will it take?”

“All of us who have been around the block find it bizarre that we would not be 100% behind the Brits on this,” he added. “They’ve earned it. Russia hasn’t.”