The word “Russia” has, apparently, become taboo in President Donald Trump’s White House.
On Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders very deliberately avoided using the country’s name while being questioned about last week’s poisoning of a former Russian spy with a deadly nerve agent.
British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack on 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.
“We must now stand ready to take extensive measures,” May said.
Sanders, however, failed to be as direct as May when discussing the incident. After being asked three times during a White House press briefing about Russia’s connection to the poisoning, Sanders never once explicitly said “Russia” or addressed who was likely behind the attack. Instead, she only referred to it as an “indiscriminate” attack.
But, as HuffPost notes, British authorities already determined that Skripal was targeted.
“We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously,” Sanders said. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”
Noticing her failure to namedrop Russia, a reporter asked: “So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this?”
“Right now, we are standing with our UK ally,” Sanders said again. “I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that.”
After the third time, Sanders became visibly exasperated: “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.”
Of course, the Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed the UK’s accusations against them as a “circus show,” but it is not expected that they would actually admit to the crime.
Sanders’ response, however, is indicative of the White House’s failure to criticize or condemn Russia for anything since Trump has been in office. The president’s Russian ties and friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin have been points of contention since the election cycle and laid the ground work for special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing collusion investigation.
Trump, who is infamous for picking fights with foreign leaders on Twitter, even failed to respond to Putin after he released a simulated video depicting nuclear missiles striking Florida. Instead, he chose to engage in a trivial Twitter feud with actor and impersonator Alec Baldwin.
“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,” said former CIA director John Brennan on MSNBC. “I think a lot of Americans are looking at what’s happening with a sense of: This is surreal.”
There is a likelihood that everyone in the Trump administration has been legally advised to avoid speaking about Russia, in any context, amid the collusion probe, and Sanders and Trump may have just been following that guidance. However, if this is the case, the strategy is doing more harm than good as it appears their silence is a form of condoning Russia's alleged actions.
While Sanders maintains we are standing with the UK, the White House's refusal to rebuke Russia sends a troubling message about who the administration really considers our ally.