White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Britain's PM Theresa May is threatening to retaliate against Moscow.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions about Russia's involvement in spy poisonings and U.K. calls for sanctions. (CREDIT: Fox News)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions about Russia's involvement in spy poisonings and U.K. calls for sanctions. (CREDIT: Fox News)

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday dodged questions about Moscow’s alleged involvement in a series of poisonings targeting former spies living in Britain, instead offering a canned statement about maintaining support for US allies. Sanders’ comments came hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a fiery ultimatum to Russia, threatening it with sanctions if it fails to provide answers on the matter.

“The British government believes that Russia was behind the attempted murder and poisoning of two agents,” Associated Press correspondent Zeke Miller stated. “Is that the assessment of the United States government…and will there be any repercussions for Russia from the United States, in coordination with its British allies?

Sanders punted.

“Look, we’ve been monitoring the incident closely [and] take it very seriously,” she said. “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. 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.”

Pressed on the issue further, Sanders repeated her prepared remarks and claimed that the U.K. was still “working through some of the details” of the incidents.

“Right now we are standing with our U.K. allies,” she said.  “We’re going to continue to work with the U.K. and we certainly stand with them throughout this process.” 

Pushed yet again to answer the question directly, Sanders answered, “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 to them.”

London is investigating a string of poisonings as targeted assassination attempts by the Kremlin. On Monday, Prime Minister May, addressing the House of Commons, condemned Russia for its alleged role in the recent poisonings of former spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Julia, who were targeted with a deadly nerve agent on Sunday last week and found slumped on a bench in Salisbury. A police officer who was one of the first responders on the scene was also exposed to the substance and is in stable condition. Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition.

“It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok,” May said on Monday. “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent … our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act.”

The British government has given the Kremlin until Wednesday to respond to the allegations and said it would implement retaliatory sanctions if Russia is found to be responsible.

To date, more than a dozen high-profile Russians and former spies have been targeted, and in some cases killed, in the suspected Kremlin-directed attacks on British soil.

The attacks come with the Trump administration currently under investigation over allegations it colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. The White House has been criticized repeatedly for its favorable treatment of Russia over the past year. Trump himself has been hesitant to condemn Moscow for its widely accepted role in the hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, even going so far as to say he “really believe[d]” Russian President Vladimir Putin when the latter claimed his officials were not behind the election interference.

“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” he told reporters in November. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it. … I think he is very insulted by it.”

The White House has not yet addressed recent reports that Skripal had ties with former British MI-6 officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a now famous dossier containing salacious allegations and accusations of collusion against Trump. According to The Telegraph, Skripal was reportedly “close to” one of the security consultants who worked with Steele’s company, Orbis Business Intelligence.