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Trump’s silence on Navalny’s alleged poisoning

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The suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has drawn global condemnation. In the week since the Russian opposition leader fell violently ill on a flight from Siberia, world leaders have issued statements demanding a fair and impartial investigation into the case while pledging support for Navalny and his family.

But so far, the leader of the United States has not added his condemnation to the list. Asked about the case last Thursday, President Trump said he would be “looking into it” with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but offered no details. Since then: Crickets.

Trump’s silence is easy fuel for his critics, who have long said that he is too weak on Russian President Vladimir Putin after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. “Any other U.S. President would have condemned the attack immediately,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted on Wednesday.

It has also angered Russian opposition leaders who argue Putin acts with impunity. “There is a historical term for this kind of policy, and that historical term is appeasement,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, an activist and writer who has himself survived two suspected poisonings, told MSNBC over the weekend.

The muted presidential response is hardly a surprise, however. From the earliest days of his presidency, Trump has shown little desire to criticize Putin, even when his own officials pushed for sanctions and other reprimands for Moscow. Trump has shown scant sympathy for political activists anywhere in the world, let alone in Russia.

After German doctors said Navalny was probably poisoned with a nerve agent this week, the U.S. did finally offer substantial official statements on Tuesday — albeit not from Trump. Pompeo said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the case, while U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called for an “immediate, comprehensive, and transparent investigation.”

There could be more to come. In Moscow this week, Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun warned Russian officials that the U.S. response could be harsher than after the alleged election interference, according to an account from the Russian Foreign Ministry — though State Department accounts of the meeting do not mention the threat.

Who is Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic in a coma after alleged poisoning?

But even such private warnings, if accurate, contrast with the strong public stances of other nations. At a news conference last Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both said they would support Navalny and offer him asylum.

Britain’s Boris Johnson joined the chorus Wednesday by publicly demanding an investigation. “You really have to ask yourself what has gone on here, and I think what we want to see is a full, thorough, transparent investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny,” Johnson later told reporters.

The outcry is in part due to Navalny’s stature within the Russian opposition. Trained as a lawyer, he had become one of the most high-profile foes of Putin after investigations into corruption among the Russian president’s allies, snaring high-profile figures like former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But world leaders are also just exasperated with Russia. Navalny is the latest name in an increasingly long list of Putin foes who are believed to have been targeted with poisoning — still in a coma, it is not certain yet that he will be among those who survive.

A little over two years ago, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were hospitalized after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in their home in Salisbury, England. They survived, but an unrelated woman later died. British authorities were able to convincingly link the poisoning to Russia.

The United States joined other nations in a coordinated diplomatic response to the Skripal poisoning, expelling 60 diplomats and later imposing punishing rounds of sanctions on Russia. Some administration officials point to these facts proudly as evidence that the United States is tough on Russia, despite criticism.

“No president since Reagan has shown such resolve to Moscow,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that was published on Aug. 2.

The problem with that argument is the president’s own words and actions. Reporting from the New York Times and The Washington Post suggests that Trump personally doubted Russia’s involvement in the Skripal killing, disputing it with members of his intelligence community and then-British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has often favored the Kremlin explanation for events. He famously dubbed Russian intervention in the 2016 election a “hoax” and later claimed, without evidence, that it was in fact Putin’s foes in Ukraine who actually interfered.

Since last year, he has also lost some of the most high-profile skeptics of Russian power in his administration, ranging from the hawkish, like former national security adviser John Bolton, to the bookish, like former National Security Council staffer and well-respected Russia expert Fiona Hill.

The influential foreign policy figures that remain, including Pompeo, are far more focused now on perceived foes like China and Iran or the fight to win a second term in the White House in November — despite recent reports that Moscow may again seek to interfere in the election.

This summer, Trump dismissed widespread reports that Russia was placing bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and largely ignored a Senate report released this month that offered more evidence of collusion between members of his campaign and Russian actors during the 2016 election.

The United States has taken a back seat in the ongoing crisis in Russian neighbor Belarus, even as the European Union pushes ahead on sanctions.

The Navalny poisoning may be even easier for Trump to dismiss than the Skripal case: Even some seasoned and cynical Russia watchers have doubts that Putin had a direct role in it. Any investigation into the plot will take place on Russian soil, probably under the auspices of authorities loyal to the Kremlin.

There are some small signs, however, that international pressure can make a difference. Putin said in a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Wednesday that Russia might be interested in a “thorough and objective” investigation into Navalny’s illness.

For Putin, who has never invoked Navalny’s name in public remarks, that is a notable thing to say. Now if only Trump could say it, too.

Read more:

What are the chemical compounds doctors say may have been used to poison Alexei Navalny?

How Navalny combined protests and anti-corruption campaigns to take on the Kremlin

Why poison is the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia