Trump-haters like David Frum are treating this as new evidence that POTUS is in the tank for Moscow, imagining how the Skripal incident would have been handled during a traditional post-war presidency:
The official statement Prime Minister Theresa May offered in the House of Commons today, saying it was “highly likely” Russia was the perpetrator, would be immediately supported by a carefully coordinated statement by the U.S. government, as well as other important allies in an effort led by the United States.
The U.S. would lead the way to forge some kind of common nato statement, as well as—given the difficulties of Brexit—working to ensure that the European Union demonstrated solidarity, too…
As the default continues and expands, the evidence accumulates: Trump simply will not act to protect the U.S. and its allies against even Russian aggression, even on their own territory, even in the form of attempted murder.
Russian media sounds pretty excited about Sanders’s caution too:
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) March 12, 2018
Anti-Trumpers are on edge about this because they remember the umpteen times Trump has been asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election, which his intel chiefs agree on, and has hedged with some variation of “it could have been them but it could have been others too.” If he pulls that again this time, it’ll pit him directly against May and the UK, who are obviously sufficiently confident in their conclusion despite the slight hedge in the term “highly likely” to have leveled this accusation at Russia on the world stage today. Trump maintaining neutrality between the Brits and human garbage like Putin’s regime would be a killshot to the “special relationship” potentially.
But wait. Watch the clip.
NEW: Press Sec. Sanders calls nerve agent attack in UK an "outrage," says "we stand by our closest ally."
— ABC News (@ABC) March 12, 2018
Sanders says most of the right things. The attack is an “outrage” and, more importantly, “we stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.” It doesn’t sound like she’s setting up for a momentous break with the UK; she makes clear that we’re taking a side in a dispute involving Russia and it’s the right side. Maybe U.S. intelligence is still reviewing the evidence and, as a matter of basic good practice, can’t say it agrees with May’s conclusion about culpability until that review is complete. Remember, it’s not true that Trump has studiously avoided doing anything that might anger Putin. He may even enjoy the opportunity in this case to prove to the collusion true believers that he’s willing to side with a traditional ally against Russia.
The alternative, that Sanders is under strict orders from the boss not to blame Putin no matter what American analysts say, will become clear enough in the next few days when he’s asked about this. (I can hear it now: “The UK kills lots of people too, you know.”) If U.S. intelligence confirms the findings of British intel and Trump hedges on accusing Putin again, that’ll demonstrate fairly conclusively that something preventing him from criticizing the Kremlin is hanging over Trump’s head. It’s one thing for him not to condemn Russia’s campaign interference because he thinks admitting that it happened will taint his glorious victory. There’s no similar explanation for rejecting the conclusions of UK intel, though. If he does that, it’ll suggest that he’s either under Putin’s thumb or that he wants a tectonic reorientation of U.S. foreign policy away from Europe and towards Russia.
But as I say, if he wanted that, what’s Sanders doing in front of the cameras reminding everyone of the “special relationship”? And what’s his top diplomat doing accusing Russia of being behind the attack?
ABOARD A U.S. GOVERNMENT AIRCRAFT (AP) — Tillerson says ex-spy's poisoning in UK 'clearly came from #Russia,' vows it 'will trigger a response'
— Josh Lederman (@joshledermanAP) March 12, 2018
In lieu of an exit question, read Eli Lake’s menu of ways to punish Russia for the Skripal attack. Embarrassing Putin by releasing damaging intelligence is one option, although Russian media will limit its domestic exposure. More dramatic possibilities include naming Russia as a state sponsor of terror or waging economic warfare by removing it from the SWIFT system, although either of the latter two options would wreck any chance Trump has left of detente with Moscow. Is he prepared to blow up his dream of a U.S./Russia partnership to defend British sovereignty from spy attacks? If not, what’s he prepared to do?