It has been more than a month since a former Russian spy was attacked with a nerve agent on British soil, and President Trump still hasn't echoed his administration's hard line against Russia. The episode has epitomized Trump's good cop-bad cop approach to Russia, in which his administration gets tough but Trump seems mostly preoccupied with crafting a better relationship with Vladimir Putin.
That has now changed in a big and unprecedented way — at least for one weekend.
Trump called out Putin by name Sunday and said he was “responsible for backing” an “Animal” in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the aftermath of another chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people. Trump added that there would be a “big price to pay.” According to a review of Trump's past comments courtesy of Factbase, they were Trump's toughest to date about Putin.
Here's what Trump tweeted:
Notably, Trump doesn't just call Putin “responsible” for Assad and his atrocities, but also says the area where the chemical weapons attack occurred must be taken off lockdown — a decision over which Putin, Assad's ally, could seemingly exert some influence. It sets up an unprecedented situation in which Trump is calling on Putin to do something, with the Russian president put in the position of either complying with Trump's wishes or not.
Trump has criticized Putin before, but often in muted terms.
Perhaps his most significant criticism came almost exactly one year ago after the last major chemical weapons attack in Syria. On April 12, Trump told Fox Business that Putin “is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world.”
In a news conference the same day, though, Trump reiterated his long-expressed desire to forge a relationship with Putin — even as he seemed a little less optimistic than usual.
“I'll also see about Putin over a period of time,” Trump said. “It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia. And that could happen, and it may not happen, it may be just the opposite.”
But when it comes to criticizing Putin, over the course of Trump's first 15 months in office, that's about it.
He has occasionally defended his actions against Russia and Putin as being tough. “I will say this, I am for massive oil and gas and everything else, and a lot of energy. Putin can't love that,” Trump said Jan. 10. “I am for the strongest military that the United States ever had. Putin can't love that.” He also defended his decision not to press Putin too hard on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race:
And he has also said Putin should address certain issues in Syria and Ukraine if he wants the United States to relax sanctions, tweeting the following in July:
But as far as saying Putin has done bad things and is responsible for bad things — whether election interference, human rights abuses or tragedies in Syria — Sunday was pretty much the first time. We'll see whether this was just a one-off or a sign that Trump has truly lost faith in his apparently fanciful desire to buddy up with Putin.
Update: Trump offered more comments on Putin at a Cabinet meeting Monday. He seemed to soften his comments somewhat, saying only that Putin “may” be responsible specifically for the chemical weapons attack. But he also said, “He'll pay a price.”
Asked if Putin shares responsibility for the chemical attack in Syria, Trump said:— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) April 9, 2018
"He may. Yeah. He may. If he does, it's going to be very tough. Very tough.
"He'll pay a price. Everybody's going to pay a price. He will, everybody will." https://t.co/rkU2tMZ0CT
Here's a rundown of other somewhat-negative things Trump has said about Putin, categorized by group:
Acknowledging they might not have a great relationship
Feb. 16, 2017: “I love to negotiate things. I do it really well, and all that stuff. But — but it's possible I won't be able to get along with Putin. Maybe it is. But I want to just tell you, the false reporting by the media, by you people, the false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia. And probably Putin said, “You know.” He's sitting behind his desk and he's saying, “You know, I see what's going on in the United States, I follow it closely. It's going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he's got with this fake story.” Okay?
Jan. 27, 2017: “As far as, again, Putin and Russia, I don't say good, bad or indifferent. I don't know the gentleman. I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That's possible and it's also possible that we won't. We will see what happens.”
July 27, 2016: “I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly but there's nothing that I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly as opposed to the way they are right now so that we can go and knock out ISIS together with other people and with other countries.”
Attacking others for being tied to Putin or being unable to deal with him
Randomly accusing Putin of having used the n-word
July 27, 2016: “Putin has said things over the last year that are really bad things, okay? He mentioned the n-word one time. I was shocked to hear him mention the n-word. You know what the n-word is, right? He mentioned it. I was shocked.” (There is no evidence of this claim.)