WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s last official statement before being fired by President Trump took a much harder line than the White House spokeswoman over Russia’s involvement in the use of a nerve agent to poison a former spy and his daughter on British soil.
Tillerson was reportedly told that he would be replaced Friday while in the middle of a multi-nation Africa trip, but he wasn’t told by Trump or given a reason.
Trump moved CIA Director Mike Pompeo over to the State Department and Deputy Director Gina Haspel, a career officer, will be taking over at the CIA.
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who fed intelligence to the Brits from 1995 to 2004 and was sent to the UK in a spy exchange in 2010, and his daughter Yulia collapsed March 4 at a shopping center in Salisbury. Both are in critical condition. A restaurant and a pub in the center have tested positive for traces of the nerve agent as military personnel clean up the crime scene and surrounding area.
Prime Minister Theresa May said the two were poisoned with part of a group of nerve agents known as “Novichok,” and the UK has determined that Russia either attempted an assassination on UK soil or let WMD nerve agents on the loose. May called for a “full range of measures… in response” if Russia ignores UK requests by today, and called upon NATO allies to back that response.
At the White House on Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “the use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage” and called it “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” but did not blame Russia when pressed on whether the administration assesses the same blame as May.
At about 8 p.m. Washington time, though, Tillerson issued his own statement titled “Attributing Responsibility for the Nerve Agent Attack in the UK.”
Tillerson said he spoke with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and expressed his “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,” Tillerson said.
“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 coordinate closely our responses.”
This morning, Tillerson was out, and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill were drawing a connection.
“Quickest way to get fired by @realDonaldTrump isn’t misuse of taxpayer funds, domestic violence or lying. It’s standing up to Putin,” tweeted Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared, “If he’s confirmed, we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin.”
Asked about the nerve agent attack today, Trump told reporters, “Well it sounds to me, I’m speaking to Theresa May today. It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have. I don’t know if they’ve come to a conclusion, but she’s calling me today.”
“As soon as we get the facts straight and we are going to be speaking with the British today, we’re speaking with Theresa May today, and as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” he added. “But I have not spoken to her, I’ll speak to her sometime today.”
Meanwhile, in the UK, the deadline is midnight for Russia to explain to the British government how a Russian nerve agent was used on their turf.
Neil Basu, who leads the UK’s counterterrorism effort, told reporters outside Scotland Yard today that Yulia Skripal flew into Heathrow airport from Russia on the afternoon of March 3. On Sunday afternoon, she and Sergei Skripal visited a pub and then a restaurant in the Salisbury shopping center. They were discovered on a park bench outside the restaurant after 4 p.m. after a concerned passer-by called police.
Basu said 38 people have been seen by medical personnel in relation to this incident. Of those, 34 have been assessed and discharged from hospital. Skripal and his daughter remain in critical yet stable condition. A police officer, Nick Bailey, is in serious but stable condition. One person was discharged yet continues to be monitored on an outpatient basis.
“We are exploring all investigative avenues,” Basu said. “This includes extensive CCTV footage from across the city and over 380 exhibits so far.”