Trump: "It certainly looks like" the Russians were behind Skripal assassination attempt

Has there been a sea change in the White House about Russia? If so, Donald Trump wouldn’t be the first president to get disillusioned about Vladimir Putin, although he may be the fastest to catch on. Over the last 24 hours, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has sharpened remarkably on Russia and Putin, and so has Trump’s. In a press avail with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Trump told the media that “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian mole in the UK:

That follows a tough joint statement from the US, UK, Germany, and France demanding that Russia not only explain itself but also fully disclose its secret nerve-agent program to comply with international treaties forbidding their use. Last night, Nikki Haley blasted Russia during a UN Security Council meeting for the assassination attack and other aggressive actions, demanding that they cease their offensive operations.

The sea change continued on other fronts as well today. “They’re out of control, Russia is,” Sen. John Cornyn told reporters this morning, citing the Skripal assassination attempt and the actions to interfere in Western elections. “This sort of thing needs to be responded to, and needs to be punished.” And voilà — Treasury has finally acted to impose sanctions on Russians involved in operations against the West:

The new sanctions — against five entities and 19 individuals — come following mounting criticism of President Trump’s failure to firmly confront and aggressively counter alleged Russian attacks on allied soil and continued efforts to destabilize U.S. politics.

The sanctions, while new from the Treasury Department, do overlap with previous steps taken by the U.S., including indictments of Russians by Robert Mueller for 2016 election meddling.

That’s also quite a sea change on the probe into the 2016 election. Donald Trump has often referred to Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt,” but the sanctions overlap on Mueller’s indictment is going to be seen as an endorsement of the special counsel probe. The sanctions themselves go beyond that to accusations of penetration attempts on the power grid, among other industries:

“The Administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia. Treasury intends to impose additional CAATSA sanctions, informed by our intelligence community, to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system.”

Today’s action counters Russia’s continuing destabilizing activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 U.S. election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks, including the NotPetya attack, a cyber-attack attributed to the Russian military on February 15, 2018 in statements released by the White House and the British Government. This cyber-attack was the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history. The attack resulted in billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia, and the United States, and significantly disrupted global shipping, trade, and the production of medicines. Additionally, several hospitals in the United States were unable to create electronic records for more than a week.

Since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors have also targeted U.S. government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors. Indicators of compromise, and technical details on the tactics, techniques, and procedures, are provided in the recent technical alert issued by the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Free Beacon has more on the power-grid and infrastructure attacks. The FBI has had to notify thousands of potential targets of vulnerabilities and hacks, making the scale of Russian aggression clear. Their sources believe that more sanctions and responses are on the way, too:

U.S. officials are blaming Russia for a wide-ranging and ongoing hack of the U.S. energy grid and related sectors, according to national security officials who announced a range of new sanctions on the Russian government as a result of the attack and other cyber hacks. …

FBI and DHS officials further disclosed “a new attempt by Russia to get into our energy grid” and are taking actions to warn critical sectors about this ongoing operation. U.S. officials say the Russian government is directly tied to the attack.

The new sanctions will target prominent Russian officials and entities believed to be behind the recent attack, as well as past efforts to foment unrest in the United States and influence the 2016 election.

“This is just one of a series of ongoing actions we’re taking to counter Russian aggression,” according to U.S. officials. “There will be more to come.”

I guess it really is Infrastructure Week after all, eh? The shift has some applauding the new direction of the Trump administration’s direction on Russia. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, an Obama appointee and frequent Trump critic on social media, offered an unqualified endorsement of the sanctions:

It took George Bush seven years before he realized who Putin really was, and it took Obama even longer. Trump should have learned from their errors, but at least he’s starting to learn now that the problem with Russia wasn’t a deficit of friendliness from the US. The problem with Russia is the imperialist who sits atop its oligarchical power structure. The sudden Trump embrace of what Rand Paul calls “neocons” — Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and so on — suggests that the scales may have fallen from Trump’s eyes on the true geopolitical threat in Moscow, six years after Mitt Romney presciently and accurately singled it out.

Update: I added “attempt” to the headline after publication for better accuracy. At least so far, the nerve agent attack has not killed Skripal.