It’s funny that even an impromptu presidential statement of less than 60 seconds outside a helicopter can generate debate over what Trump *really* meant. Watch:
President Trump on UK investigation into poisoning of Russian former spy: “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact.” https://t.co/CaqKGdNwT9 pic.twitter.com/XRjtjItemZ
— CNN International (@cnni) March 13, 2018
This seems to answer the question I asked last night about whether he’s prepared to follow Theresa May’s lead in blaming Russia for the attack on Skripal. Looks like it:
“It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all the evidence they have,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
But note the bit at the end of the clip where he injects a bit of doubt: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” I think that’s Trump just being cautious (not something he’s known for, admittedly) until he talks to May directly and hears from Mike Pompeo on the investigation. May herself gave Russia until tomorrow to respond to the charge, in facr. Maybe for diplomatic reasons POTUS doesn’t want to announce a verdict until the defense has had a chance to present its case.
Or maybe he’s hedging because he’s soft on Putin?
Trump on UK poisoning: “We will condemn Russia…or whoever it may be.”
— Vaughn Sterling (@vplus) March 13, 2018
Actually, listen to what he says. “As soon as we get the facts straight… we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” Doesn’t seem more than a tsk-tsk is being considered for a chemical weapons attack on an ally’s soil. https://t.co/t1htjiUkFL
— Michael Weiss (@michaeldweiss) March 13, 2018
That’s a better question. Even if he goes along with the UK’s conclusion and blames Russia, what’s he prepared to do about it? Is the solution here new sanctions or a rhetorical shrug from Trump along the lines of “we’ve all whacked double agents before”? Will there be a coordinated NATO response?
Trump’s reaction to the Skripal incident also matters in terms of his timing in firing Rex Tillerson. I think Ed’s right that T-Rex’s harsh words for Russia yesterday probably didn’t factor into Trump’s decision to fire him. The Tillerson death watch began months ago, after all; the NYT reported all the way back in November that Pompeo was lined up to replace him. Trump probably wanted a hawk at State in handling North Korea and Iran, especially after reports trickled out recently that Tillerson (and Mattis) had been slow-walking military options for fear that Trump might actually use them.
But if it’s true that Tillerson didn’t find out he was being fired until this morning, less than 24 hours after his Russia comments, then Trump critics will point to the correlation as causation. That raises the political stakes for Trump’s reaction to the Skripal poisoning. If he comes down firmly on the UK’s side and endorses some sort of penalty for Russia, the idea that he canned T-Rex for criticizing Putin makes no sense. If instead he hedges on blame or insists on a wrist-slap for Russia for poisoning Skripal, anti-Trumpers will go to town.
By the way, if it’s true that Tillerson was blindsided by the firing and found out this morning only when he saw Trump’s tweet about it, that would be the second time in less than a year that a very high-ranking federal official was ignominiously fired without a direct communication from the president. James Comey also allegedly discovered he was being fired through the media, when cable news broke in to announce it while he was addressing a roomful of FBI agents on the west coast. The only direct communication to him from the White House was, apparently, Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller being dispatched with a termination letter to FBI headquarters in Washington — presumably knowing that Comey wasn’t there, as that would have been easy to find out beforehand. For a guy with a reputation for firing people, Trump can’t seem to muster the nerve to do it face to face or even voice to voice on the phone. Or maybe he just likes humiliating the people who’ve served him on their way out the door.
Exit question: Remember the reports last year of a “suicide pact” among Tillerson, Mattis, and Steve Mnuchin in which, if one were fired, the other two would quit? Well?