On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders couldn’t even bring herself to utter the word “Russia” in response to a question about whether the Trump administration thought Russia was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England.
By Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was singing a totally different tune, saying “the United Stands in absolute solidarity with Great Britain” and “believes that Russia is responsible for the attack.” Now that one U.N. Security Council member has been accused of using chemical weapons against another member, she added, “The credibility of this council will not survive if we fail to hold Russia accountable.”
Even the White House press shop managed to squeeze out a release Wednesday evening stating that the U.S. “shares the United Kingdom’s assessment” that Russia poisoned Surgei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
What changed? The White House appears to have gotten itself into a pickle that even it couldn’t lie its way out of. The optics were just too damning.
Between Monday’s briefing and Wednesday’s 180 degree shift, House Republicans announced they were shutting down the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election without interviewing a boatload of key witnesses, compelling testimony from uncooperative witnesses, and issuing subpoenas for important documents. Once more, the House GOP’s conclusion broke with the Intelligence Community assessment that Russia preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton, an assertion of neutrality that prompted the intelligence agencies to reiterate faith in their original assessment. Certain Republican lawmakers have since tried to paint the conclusion of their own committee as more in line with that of that intelligence agencies.
But the damage didn’t stop there. Donald Trump then fired his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, almost immediately after Tillerson issued a far more decisive statement on Russia’s involvement in the incident. In fact, at a press conference with reporters Monday, Tillerson called the administration’s entire posture toward Russia into question.
“I’ve become extremely concerned about Russia,” Mr. Tillerson said in the interview. “We spent most of last year investing a lot into attempts to work together, to solve problems, to address differences. And quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far. Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive.”
Let’s face it, there was just no way to spin the fact that the White House was walking on eggshells around Russia while Trump fired the guy who fingered Russia for the crime and House Republicans declared that there was nothing fishy going on between Trump and Russia.
It remains to be seen if Trump’s White House will do anything truly meaningful to hold Russia accountable for its attack on the U.K., but at least the administration is now on record with a show of solidarity. And it only took one bogus report, one indefensible firing, and a global dose of shame to make it happen.