As world leaders condemn Russian aggression, Trump says he and Putin ‘get along’

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“I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic. It is terrible; that shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any evidence yet, but I’ll take a look, ”Trump said Friday at a White House press conference. In response to further questions on the subject, he tried to turn to his favorite opponent, saying what China was doing was “much worse.” And as he had done the day before at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, he stressed: “I get along with President Putin.”

Trump seems downright out of step with the British and German leaders, who have expressed outrage at the attack on Navalny.

Friday’s comments were his first on Navalny since Germany said he was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group – the same substance the Kremlin used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in March 2018.The first American response came in a series of tweets from National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot.

“The United States is deeply disturbed by the results released today. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is totally reprehensible. Russia has used the nerve agent Novichok in the past, ”Ullyot said. “We will work with our allies and the international community to hold people in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence takes us, and limit funds for their malicious activities. ”

Since then, US ambassadors in Moscow, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have spoken and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with the Russian ambassador to the United States on Friday, where he expressed “grave concern” over the poisoning, according to a State Department reading.

“Strong declarations are necessary”

But the language of the US government summit has been more equivocal.

“Strong statements are needed, including from the president himself,” Alexander Vershbow, who served as US ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush, told CNN.

“We’ve been waiting for this for four years, whatever the Russians have done, and every time Trump has been true to form,” he added.

A senior European official told CNN that the Trump administration’s only outreach to Germany regarding the revelations about Navalny’s condition has been at the operational level to gather more information about the apparent poisoning. But there is no indication from the Trump administration that it will take action to punish Russia for apparent Navalny poisoning, the official said.

In his press conference on Friday, Trump claimed he “had been far harder on Russia than anyone”.

But the pace and risk posed by Russian actions in recent weeks have worried senior military officials. Moscow has conducted at least five military missions targeting US forces in locations ranging from the waters off Alaska and the skies over Europe to remote eastern Syria.

Trump’s silence after seven US soldiers were wounded in Syria is particularly striking.

The United States claims the soldiers were injured when their vehicle was struck by a Russian military convoy on August 25, although Moscow has denied any guilt. The Russians also flew a military helicopter low and quickly over the Americans, at which senior U.S. military officials are furious, seeing it as a threat to their personnel.

The US military has been ordered to remain silent by the administration until the next day, several officials confirmed to CNN. The official response came in harshly worded statements by press spokespersons, with nothing from President or Defense Secretary Mark Esper. A defense official said the Pentagon had been muzzled “because it’s Russia” and “that means it’s sensitive” to the administration. The next day, the US Central Command, which oversees operations in the region, called the Russian activity an “unauthorized incursion” into an area where US troops were operating.

Russia’s recent military actions raise concerns at the highest levels of the Pentagon.

Some of Russia’s other military actions have been dangerous. In addition to the collision in Syria, two Russian fighter jets repeatedly passed each other within 100 feet of the nose of a US B-52 bomber over the Black Sea on August 28. The resulting turbulence made maneuvering difficult for the American crew.

“There have obviously been occasions when Russian forces have chosen not to follow agreed standards of safe interception, putting the lives of our respective servicemen in unnecessary danger. This is unacceptable and we have been clear about it, ”added another US defense official. told CNN.

Pentagon criticizes Russia for 'provocative and aggressive behavior' that has injured US troops in Syria

In recent days, a Russian submarine has suddenly surfaced off Alaska, without explanation, and an American B-52 bomber has been intercepted by a Russian Su-27 fighter over the Baltic Sea. The Russians followed the B-52 well into Danish airspace, committing a significant violation of the airspace of a NATO country and a US ally.

“The unauthorized intrusion of sovereign airspace is a significant violation of international law,” NATO Allied Air Command said in a statement. So far, Trump has not spoken out in defense of the alliance.

Several defense officials told CNN that they believe the series of Russian actions is a direct result of Putin’s priorities: trying to undermine U.S. interests and credibility while trying to demonstrate that the military Russian remains a great power which can operate all over the world.

“Putin just can’t resist sticking it to the US”

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan John Herbst noted that the provocations “could be embarrassing for President Trump.”

“It’s not smart in terms of their longer-term interests, as they define them, to try to do things that might embarrass President Trump, but they are doing it, because Putin just can’t not resist the United States, ”he told CNN.

Russia has denied any wrongdoing in recent military clashes.

Officials say there have been private communications from the US government with the Russians about their dangerous actions, but there are currently no plans to try to involve the president and no indication that Trump wants to get involved. .

Vershbow warns that this could be a mistake: “If the Russians feel like this is only being raised by lower and middle level officials, but without the president’s support, they won’t take the US protests very seriously.” “.

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Officials are keenly aware that all of this is taking place as they battle Russia in cyberspace and attempt to blunt its meddling in the U.S. election, another Russian move Trump is silent on. The Pentagon’s cyber command places a strong emphasis on helping national law enforcement and the intelligence community to try to stop Russian interference in the November elections.

So far, the White House has offered no explanation for the president’s silence in the face of repeated military provocations. When Hogan Gidley, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, was asked why Trump hadn’t called the Russians, he told CNN earlier this week: “He did, and it is. the same song, a different line. He already did. , it will start again. ”

But the experts are not convinced.

“I think this speaks to the ambiguities of our policy on Russia. In fact, the policy as a whole is pretty good. It could be better, but it’s pretty good. But you have the unusual factor of the president’s reluctance to criticize Putin or the Kremlin. And that makes the policy a little unusual, and that’s obviously not a good thing, ”Herbst told CNN.

CNN’s Vivian Salama, Nikki Carvajal and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

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