White House claims President Trump ‘has been incredibly tough on Russia’

Press Secretary Sean Spicer presented an alternative history.

During Tuesday’s White House press conference, Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the irony” of Michael Flynn resigning from his role as national security adviser for possibly illegal pre-inauguration communications with Russian officials is that “the president has been incredibly tough on Russia.”

Trump “continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration had allowed to be seized by Russia,” Spicer said, reading prepared remarks. “His ambassador to the United Nations [Nikki Haley] stood before the UN Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea… President Trump made it very clear he expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.”

Spicer’s remarks were surprising, as there is no record of Trump ever saying a negative word about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the contrary, Trump has consistently praised Putin and expressed support for policies that are in Russia’s interests, such as removing sanctions and disarming Ukranians who continue to fight pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. intelligence community publicly concluded that Russia meddled in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and CNN reported last week that “US investigators say they have corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent” about compromising information Russian officials allegedly have regarding Trump.

While it’s true that Haley began her tenure as UN ambassador with strong comments about Russia, it’s unclear to what extent the White House was involved in preparing her speech. And during the February 1 White House press conference, Spicer brushed off a question about the administration’s response to escalating hostilities between Russia and Ukraine — hostilities stemming from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, an intrusion preliminarily deemed “a crime” by the International Criminal Court.

As a result of the invasion, the Crimean Peninsula, formerly part of Ukraine, became part of Russia. The new arrangement was formalized in a 2014 referendum the European Union and Obama administration condemned as illegal.

But earlier this month the Trump White House suggested that hostilities in Ukraine are merely a border dispute.

“We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border,” Trump said, according to a readout of his call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Later during Tuesday’s press conference, Jim Acosta of CNN pushed back on Spicer’s “the president has been incredibly tough” remark.

“You said earlier that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. How is that possible?” Acosta said. “He’s made comment after comment over the course of the campaign and the transition where he defended Vladimir Putin, he had an interview with Bill O’Reilly where when he was asked if Vladimir Putin is a killer, he said, ‘well, America hasn’t been that much better in this regard.’ To me, and to a lot of Americans, it seems that this president has not been tough on Russia. How can you say that?”

In response, Spicer began by alluding to Trump’s oft-stated desire to have good relations with Russia to “help us defeat ISIS and terrorism throughout the world,” before saying that Ambassador Haley’s strong comments were indeed made on behalf of the president.

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Earlier Tuesday, Fox News, citing unnamed officials, reported that “a Russian spy ship was spotted patrolling off the East Coast of the United States on Tuesday morning, the first such instance during the Trump administration — and the same day it was learned the Kremlin had secretly deployed controversial cruise missiles inside Russia and buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer.”

But while a missile test by Iran prompted the administration to put the country “on notice” and another by North Korea prompted Trump to make a joint statement with with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe where Abe called North Korea’s actions “absolutely intolerable,” Trump and his administration have been silent about the Russian spy ship and missile deployments.