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Trump Is Deliberately or Accidentally Playing Into Russian Disinformation

Trump Is Deliberately or Accidentally Playing Into Russian Disinformation
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

By Wednesday, 14 March 2018 08:59 PM Current | Bio | Archive

For the first 14 months of the Donald Trump administration, a fair analysis of its handling of Russia had to include some important caveats. Yes, the president sounds like an oafish sycophant on the topic of President Vladimir Putin. But look at his cabinet. Look at his government's actual policies.

From arming Ukraine to appointing hawkish generals like James Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, a case could be made that Trump's soft rhetoric on Russia was not reflected in his government's tough measures against this adversary. After all, U.S. forces killed Russian mercenaries that attacked a U.S. base in Syria. Watch what the government does, not what the president says. (And as for those allegations of Russian support for the Trump campaign, the president has good reasons to distrust the retired intelligence chiefs who keep impugning him. A few of them endorsed his opponent.)

The expiration date on this Janus-faced approach to Russia has arrived. The specific moment was on Tuesday after Trump had fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One, Trump couldn't bring himself to endorse the findings of the British government that Russia poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the U.K. He hedged. "As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” he said.

Trump here is either deliberately or accidentally playing into Russia's disinformation campaign. Since the attack last week, when the former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with a neurological toxin developed by the former Soviet Union, Russia's propaganda networks have flooded their airwaves with speculation about a false flag.

Give Moscow credit. They know how to troll. One voice that keeps cropping up on the matter is Russian lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi. He says he can't rule out that the whole thing was a provocation from the British themselves. Lugovoi has some experience when it comes to poisoning: A British public inquiry in 2016 concluded he was one of the men who irradiated former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Now it's one thing to expect Trump to push back against his opposition's narrative about Russian influence aiding him in the 2016 election. Even though he has begrudgingly conceded at times that Russia meddled, it's also true that he began his presidency under a cloud of suspicion about collusion, a charge that has yet to be proven or disproven.

For now, the White House is working through a statement on the attack with the governments of France, the U.K. and Germany. A White House official assures me it will be a strong and unequivocal condemnation. Already, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, has issued a strong tweet urging Moscow to answer all questions about the attack. On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, followed up, saying Russia was "responsible" for attempted murder. They are following the pattern: tough action and words from the underlings, and baffling nonsense or sinister silence from the president.

This can no longer do. It's time for the president to address the Russian attack in his own words on and off camera. If Trump doesn't take this opportunity to show a bare minimum of presidential leadership, then he will be proving his most virulent opponents correct when they say the president has something to hide about his relationship to Russia.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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The expiration date on this Janus-faced approach to Russia has arrived. The specific moment was on Tuesday after Trump had fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
russia, trump, british, ambassador, poisoned, spy
Wednesday, 14 March 2018 08:59 PM
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