It has been two weeks since Alexei Navalny became the latest Russian opposition leader to find himself poisoned. After being transported to Germany last week, the German government found that Navalny had been poisoned with toxins in the Novichok class, a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union that was also used in the poisoning of Russian dissident Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “beyond a doubt” that this was “an attempted murder with nerve agent” and said Navalny was “the victim of a crime intended to silence him.” She said the results raise “very serious questions that only the Russian government can answer — and must answer,” and said “the world will wait for an answer.”
For the entirety of the two weeks, though, President Trump hasn’t weighed in even once on Navalny’s poisoning — even in general terms. And it’s difficult to divorce that from his handling of other recent allegations of Russia’s malign activity, including Skripal’s poisoning and the recent allegations of Russian bounties on U.S. troops.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the reports that Navalny was poisoned. He added that, “Mr. Navalny’s family and the Russian people deserve to see a full and transparent investigation carried out, and for those involved to be held accountable.” But Pompeo didn’t weigh in Wednesday after the new German findings.
Likewise, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Thursday called for accountability, saying the White House was “deeply troubled” by the results of Germany’s review and called Navalny’s poisoning “completely reprehensible.” But like Pompeo, there was little in the way of directly laying this at the feet of the Russian government. McEnany instead decried the poisoning while pointing to Russia’s past such efforts.
“Russia has used chemical nerve agents in the past, and we’re working with our allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable wherever the evidence leads and restrict funds for their malign activities,” McEnany said. “The Russian people have a right to express their views peacefully without fear of retribution of any kind, and certainly not with chemical agents. And no one has been tougher on the Russian government than this president.”
McEnany’s reference to “those in Russia” and the entirety of her comments match tweets from a National Security Council spokesman on Wednesday. But they don’t explicitly point to the Russian government. (There is little doubt Navalny was poisoned by “those in Russia.”) And the “wherever the evidence leads,” which was also included in both McEnany’s and the NSC’s comment, suggests the evidence might lead somewhere besides the Russian government.
In addition, McEnany’s last comment about Trump being tougher on Russia than anyone — which wasn’t in the NSC comment — glosses over plenty of recent history.
In recent months, Trump has suggested that U.S. intelligence on Russian bounties allegedly placed on U.S. troops was a “hoax,” even as members of his administration have clearly taken it very seriously and even as Pompeo saw fit to warn Russia’s foreign minister about it.
Trump’s handling of the Skripal matter also betrayed a willingness to give Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt. The Washington Post last year reported that Trump was privately skeptical of Russia’s culpability during a call with then-British Prime Minister Theresa May.
“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on a call with Trump. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”
The Guardian also reported on Trump’s skepticism in talking with May, which Russia itself played up. The New York Times reported that Trump seemed to view the matter as a legitimate spy game and resisted Western pressure on Russia in response.
Even when Trump more gently fingered Russia for Skripal’s poisoning, he qualified whether Putin was responsible. “Probably he is, yeah,” Trump said, before again emphasizing the “probably.” When pressed by “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl, Trump added, “But I rely on them. It’s not in our country.”
It’s hardly been the only time Trump gave credence to Russia’s denials on such topics. And all of it comes in the context of Trump’s frequent questioning of Russia’s true role in its 2016 election interference — and his reported allergy to even discussing the topic during intelligence briefings.
It bears noting that even Merkel’s comments were somewhat careful, allowing that Russia should respond to the prospect of it having poisoned Navalny. But she said this was clearly an attempt to “silence” him. Even the comments from the White House and Pompeo point more gently in Russia’s direction. McEnany noted Russia’s history with this kind of thing and called for accountability, but there’s one person from whom that would land with the most force.
That person, though, has suggested very publicly that even Putin’s assassinations aren’t something the United States can judge too harshly and that its denials are worth something. And both the last two weeks and the last two years seem to affirm that’s what he truly believes, regardless of how those around him might ultimately prevail upon him to respond.
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