• Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

As Others Condemn Putin Critic’s Poisoning, Trump Just Wants to ‘Get Along’

President Trump on Thursday reiterated his desire to “get along” with Moscow despite an international uproar over the poisoning of the Russian dissident Aleksei A. Navalny with a deadly nerve agent, saying that when the subject of Russia appears on the news, he turns it off.

Speaking at a small campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., Mr. Trump did not mention Mr. Navalny on a day when his press secretary issued a stern statement about the apparent assassination attempt against the dissident, who is the most prominent domestic critic of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Nor did he address new warnings from his own intelligence officials that Russia is seeking to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf.

Instead, he boasted that he had kept the United States “out of wars,” and he pointed to his persistent efforts to thaw relations between Washington and Moscow. “It’s good that I get along,” Mr. Trump said. “If I get along with Russia, is that a good thing or bad thing? I think it’s a good thing.”

His remarks came hours after the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, called Mr. Navalny’s poisoning “deeply reprehensible” and said the United States would “hold those in Russia accountable wherever the evidence leads.” But she also insisted to reporters that “no one has been tougher on the Russian government than this president.”

While the Trump administration has taken some punitive actions against Russia’s government, including the expulsion of diplomats and an array of economic sanctions, it has done so mainly under pressure from Congress or European allies — and often only with Mr. Trump’s grudging approval, according to several former White House officials.

The startling attack on Mr. Putin’s most prominent domestic critic during a trip to Siberia last month has renewed attention on Mr. Trump’s undisguised admiration for a Russian leader widely seen in Washington and Europe as an amoral autocrat determined to undermine Western democracies. It comes amid several other acts of Russian aggression, including efforts to interfere in the 2020 election and a confrontation with American troops in Syria last month that injured seven U.S. soldiers.

Mr. Trump’s comments came as foreign leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, demanded answers from Moscow about the episode. Germany’s government said this week that Mr. Navalny was afflicted by the advanced nerve agent Novichok, produced by the Soviet Union and thought to be possessed now by Russia’s Kremlin-controlled security services.

No conclusive evidence exists linking Mr. Putin or the Kremlin to Mr. Navalny’s poisoning, and the Kremlin has denied any involvement. Some analysts have said he may have been targeted by political rivals at the local level. But the finding by Germany — which is now caring for Mr. Navalny and providing him with asylum — that he was the victim of Novichok lends strong weight to the theory that it was an action by high levels of Russia’s security services.

Seeing a political opening, Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said in a statement on Wednesday that it was clear that Mr. Putin’s government was responsible for poisoning Mr. Navalny, an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin and his political allies, and that Mr. Trump’s “silence is complicity.”

But in Latrobe on Thursday, the president treated the topic of Russia as little more than a political cudgel used by his opponents for partisan gain. He renewed his attacks on Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who led the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into a possible conspiracy between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russian officials.

“These maniacs always talk about Russia. They never talk about China. It is always Russia. I heard it starting again,” Mr. Trump said. “They said somebody spoke to Russia two years ago, Russia, Russia, Russia. The total maniacs — Shifty Schiff is a total maniac. I can’t even listen.”

He said when he hears people talking about Russia, “I just turn it off. It is crazy.”

Mr. Trump made no mention of last month’s bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing ties between his campaign in 2016 and Kremlin officials, including confirmation that a business partner in Ukraine of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was a Russian intelligence agent. Nor did he address a new warning from the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday that Russians are trying to foment disinformation by amplifying unfounded claims of voter fraud.

Mr. Trump has directly addressed Mr. Navalny’s case only once, saying in response to a reporter on Aug. 20 that “we’re looking at it,” and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be “reporting to me soon.”

Five days later, Mr. Pompeo issued a statement saying that if reports of a poisoning “prove accurate,” the United States would back “a comprehensive investigation” by the European Union and stood ready to assist. He added that “Mr. Navalny’s family and the Russian people deserve to see a full and transparent investigation carried out, and for those involved to be held accountable.”

Michael Carpenter, a former top Russia official at the Pentagon and foreign policy adviser to Mr. Biden at the White House, said it was revealing that Mr. Trump had left the response to his subordinates. “In a well-established game, he has subordinates deep down in the bureaucracy like the N.S.C. spokesman issue a statement,” Mr. Carpenter said.

But as in previous instances of Russian wrongdoing, Mr. Trump himself has not echoed their words.

Mr. Trump has also not commented on a series of escalatory Russian military actions in recent days, including a late-August episode in northeastern Syria that left seven American troops injured after a Russian armored vehicle rammed theirs. And he has dismissed intelligence reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-affiliated fighters in Afghanistan for the killing of American troops there as “a hoax.”

Some Trump officials, who hold more hawkish views toward Russia than the president, are also frustrated at Mr. Putin’s support for the embattled president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, who recently met in Moscow with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that the United States was urging “Moscow to not intervene, and certainly not to militarily intervene to prop up the regime.”

Mr. Biegun said he had discussed Mr. Navalny’s case with Mr. Lavrov, adding that American relations with Russia have been “significantly challenged” in recent years by several points of conflict.

Allies of Mr. Biden’s have grown increasingly aggressive in their attacks on Mr. Trump on the subject of his relations with the Russian president, with whom he has spoken at least eight times this year.

“Trump is unable to stand up to Putin. This is a real problem for the U.S. and NATO. His weakness emboldens the Kremlin,” R. Nicholas Burns, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote on Twitter in response to Mr. Trump’s comments on Thursday.

“Trump repeatedly gets punked by Putin,” Susan E. Rice, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote in a tweet on Monday. “And says and does nothing.”