Sanders was referring to remarks Trump made on Wednesday during a joint news conference with leaders of Baltic nations. A journalist from Estonia asked, “How are you going to deal with President Vladimir Putin? Is he your enemy or someone you can have dialogue with?”
“Well, I think we'll be able to have great dialogue, I hope,” Trump answered. “And if we can't, you'll be the first to know about it. Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”
So there. According to the White House, it is “ridiculous” to say that Trump has not talked about the latest round of sanctions — and the Russian actions that prompted them — because he very clearly asserted just a couple of days ago that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than him. The administration's position is, basically, that Trump has been tough because he said so.
At the joint news conference, the first piece of evidence Trump held up to prove his toughness was that the United States is “very strong on energy.”
“We're an exporter of energy,” he said. “That is not a positive for Russia, but it's certainly a positive for the United States. We just passed a $700 billion military budget. Next year, $716 billion — the largest ever passed. We are going to have a military stronger than we've ever had before, by far. That's not exactly a great thing for Russia, but that's the way it is.”
Trump's points were not without some merit, but his emphasis on energy exports and military spending also served as yet another example of his apparent reluctance to call out Russia — in his own voice — for troubling activities in the United States and other Western countries.
Responding to Sanders, Bierman said, “On these sanctions today, he's not spoken out, and there's been no statement issued under his name. And he's not spoken out specifically about the issues enumerated by the administration. He hasn't condemned the alleged subversion of Western democracies, the activity in Syria — a number of things, cybercrimes. All the things that your administration has outlined, he himself has not spoken out against those. He's just said he's been tough on Russia.”
Sanders then restated an argument she has made before — that the words of other administration officials should be satisfactory substitutes for remarks by the president himself.
“We speak on behalf of the president, day in, day out,” she said. “Again, the president has signed off and directed these actions. I think that that speaks volumes, actually, on how the president feels.”
Actions matter, of course, but what the president is willing to say matters, too — especially as Trump considers hosting Putin for a summit at the White House. Trump mentioned the idea to Putin during a March 20 phone call on which he congratulated Putin for winning reelection, against the guidance of White House advisers.
Six days after the call, the United States expelled 60 Russian officials, in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. Trump did not confront Putin during their conversation, however.
At a media briefing on the day of the expulsions, deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah called the poisoning “reckless” and “brazen.”
“But if the president believes it was a reckless and brazen action, why did he not say so to Putin, directly, when he spoke with him and had the opportunity to do that?” The Washington Post's Philip Rucker asked.
“Well, he raised a number of issues, and we did secure with Putin, on that call, some positive interaction when it comes to nuclear arms,” Shah said.
Though the White House might not want to admit it, there is a pattern in which Trump's own rhetoric on Russia is softer than that of other officials and does not match the strength of his administration's actions.