Split between State and White House over reaction to UK nerve agent attack

Trump’s spokeswoman “demurred” from blaming Russians, while Rex Tillerson pointed the finger at Moscow

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 12, 2018. Sanders answered questions on North Korea, school safety and other topics. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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A public split appears to have occurred between the White House and the State Department in their reaction to the British government’s accusation that the Russians are likely behind the apparent assassination attempt against former double agent Sergei Skripal.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that it was "highly likely" Moscow was responsible for the attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, southern England earlier this month, which has left both seriously ill in hospital.

Responding to questions on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “the use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible ... We stand by our closest ally in the special relationship that we have.”

However, she refused to specifically blame the Russians for the attempt on the 66-year-old Mr Skripal's life. As Peter Baker of The New York Times said, Mrs Huckabee Sanders "decline[d] to name Russia as the likely culprit, as the UK has".

Within hours, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson released a statement which left no doubt as to where he thought the finger of blame should point.

“The United States was in touch with our allies in the United Kingdom ahead of today’s announcement, including in a call between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary [Boris] Johnson this morning. We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.

“There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to co-ordinate closely our responses.”


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Given that Ms Sanders, in the view of The Times's US editor,  "demur[red] when asked to recognise Russia as culprit", it can be read into the disparity of statements that there is a split at the heart of the US establishment in how to react to an attack which has also put a British policeman investigating the case into hospital.

The British government claims that Novichok, an agent developed by the Soviets during the 1970s and 80s and whose existence was only revealed in 1992, was involved in the attack. Novichok – "newcomer" in English – is claimed to be up to ten times as lethal as VX gas. It can be deployed as a powder, and causes those infected by it to suffocate as fluid floods their lungs.