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White House pressed to respond after spy's poisoning in the UK

If the Trump White House wants to show how "tough" it is toward Russia, the president and his team suddenly have a great opportunity.

This was among the biggest stories in the world yesterday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is "highly likely" Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent.May told British lawmakers on Monday that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok, a weapon developed in the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War.

By some estimates, hundreds of local people may have been exposed to the dangerous nerve agent.

In case this isn't obvious, the United Kingdom, a pillar of NATO and a nuclear-armed state, came awfully close to saying Russia launched an attack on their sovereign soil. Indeed, the British prime minister specifically declared yesterday, "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."

And so, naturally, attention then turned to the United States. Would Donald Trump's White House stand arm-in-arm with one of America's closest allies after an apparent Russian attack?

A reporter yesterday asked the president's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, if there will be "any repercussions for Russia from the United States, in coordination with its British allies." Sanders replied that the United States condemns the attack, adding, "We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have."

Pressed further, however, Sanders refused to say that Russia was behind the incident. The White House spokesperson also wouldn't endorse Theresa May's conclusions.


The Atlantic's David Frum wrote in response, "It’s too early to say that the Trump administration will do nothing. Perhaps it may yet step up. Perhaps it may even calculate that joining the U.K. in sanctions upon Russians implicated in such an outrageous crime may quiet complaints about the Trump administration’s refusal to implement sanctions for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Those questions remain open. For now, though, we are presented with the most astounding yet Trump default from traditional U.S. alliances and leadership."

About a month ago, the White House was eager to insist that when it comes to Russia, Donald Trump has been incredibly "tough." We should all be impressed with his "toughness." Trump's tough toughness, the argument went, has certainly been tougher than that rascally Barack Obama, who was never as tough as Donald "Tough" Trump.

The evidence to the contrary, of course, has long been overwhelming. After yesterday, Sanders' rhetoric appears even more ridiculous.

Postscript: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went much further than the White House in blaming Russia for the incident, but since Tillerson often seems to be on the periphery of the administration, routinely contradicting the official Trump line, it's hard to gauge the significance of the cabinet official's comments.