The White House on Wednesday night issued its first statement identifying Russia as the main culprit behind a series of attacks and nerve agent poisonings targeting former spies living in the U.K.
“The United States shares the United Kingdom’s assessment that Russia is responsible for the reckless nerve agent attack on a British citizen and his daughter, and we support the United Kingdom’s decision to expel Russian diplomats as a just response,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote. “This latest action by Russia fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes. The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”
The assessment was unfortunately “too little, too late,” given that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and a slew of other administration officials had come to the same conclusion days prior.
Earlier in the week, May, speaking before the House of Commons, issued a fiery rebuke of Russian officials, whom she said were behind a toxic nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Julia. (Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition.) The two were the latest in a line of at least 14 other public figures or former intelligence agents allegedly targeted by the Russian government.
“It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” May said on Monday. “The government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
The prime minister gave Russia until Wednesday to answer her demand for answers, prompting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to slam the request as part of a “Russophobic campaign” meant to smear his country. On Wednesday afternoon, facing a dearth of information and no substantial response from Russia, the U.K. expelled 23 Russian diplomats, saying that country had “demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.”
“They have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent, no explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the U.K., no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons program in contravention of international law,” May said. “Instead, they have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt, and defiance.”
The White House’s initial reaction to the back and forth between the two nations was to sidestep the issue entirely. Sanders faced questions about the prime minister’s condemnation and how the United States would respond, but she dodged, declining to pin the blame on Russia and saying only that the United States stood with its ally.
“The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against U.K. citizens on U.K. soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible,” Sanders said on Monday, reading from a prepared statement. “We offer the fullest condemnation and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families, and our support to the U.K. government. We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.”
Several subsequent attempts to clarify whether the White House supported May’s threats of diplomatic retaliation or sanctions went unanswered.
The Trump administration is currently under investigation over allegations that it colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Later on Monday, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was more forceful when speaking with reporters, saying that there was clear evidence linking Russia to the attacks. “This is a really egregious act,” he said. “It appears that it clearly came from Russia. Whether it came from Russia with the Russian government’s knowledge is not known to me at this point.”
Trump fired Tillerson the next day, although the White House has since claimed it fired the former secretary of state before he made the comments. Former State Department Under Secretary Steve Goldstein was also fired this week for issuing a statement on Tillerson’s behalf, saying that Tillerson had not learned of his own dismissal until President Trump tweeted about it on Tuesday.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also spoke out against Russia this week, countering the White House’s tepid statements with a more aggressive call on the UN to hold the country accountable.
“Time and time again, members states say they oppose the use of chemical weapons under any circumstance,” she said at a UN Security Council emergency session on Wednesday. “Now one member stands accused of using chemical weapons on the sovereign soil of another member. The credibility of this council will not survive if we fail to hold Russia accountable.”
The White House finally relented later in the week, issuing a joint statement with the U.K. and France in which it condemned the attacks and stated that there was “no plausible alternative explanation” that might absolve the Russian state.
“It threatens the security of us all. The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack,” the statement read. “We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.”
Separately on Thursday, the Trump administration announced that it had issued financial sanctions against Russian people and state organizations to deter the country from attempting to intervene in the upcoming midterm elections, as it has in past elections. Just this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted at least 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities for using a complex social media campaign to distribute fake news posts often supportive of Trump and critical of his rival, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 election.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement on Thursday. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”
The administration also indicated that Russia had attempted to target the U.S. energy grid, with malware that could potentially corrupt its systems, the Washington Post reported.