The Memo: Trump takes on critics with Russia moves

The White House sought to quash suggestions that President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE is too soft on Moscow Thursday, ordering sanctions against Russians alleged to have participated in election meddling and joining allies to condemn the Kremlin for an attempted murder in Britain. 

The moves took many skeptical observers by surprise, given that the administration has long been accused of being too sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

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At Thursday’s White House media briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump “has been extremely tough on Russia throughout his administration." 

Some critics remained unsatisfied.

Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, called the sanctions “a very short first step” because they were narrow in scope and did not target business interests closer to Putin. He also said that the joint statement about the attack on a former Russian double agent living in Britain left something to be desired. 

“The thing that would carry impact is if they heard he himself saying or even tweeting something negative about Russia,” said Bergmann, referring to Trump. “Because ultimately, if this does escalate, the United States is really going to have to do something more forceful, and that is going to require the president.”  

When it comes to public perception, the White House has struggled to escape the long shadow cast by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into whether the 2016 Trump campaign conspired with Moscow. 

A Marist poll earlier this month indicated that 53 percent of Americans believe Trump has done something either illegal or unethical in his dealings with Putin, while just 36 percent believe he has done nothing wrong. 

Mueller’s team has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents, including some related to Russia, further fueling the suspicions of Trump’s critics.

Yet the events on Thursday, rolled out in near-simultaneous statements from the White House, Treasury Department and State Department, has the potential to help counter the perception that Trump is going easy on Moscow. 

Trump staff members argue vigorously that the “soft on Russia” accusation ignores key issues on which Trump has taken a line hostile to the Kremlin.  

Trump has in the past bridled at the idea that he is too close with Putin. 

"I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!” he tweeted last month.

Late last year, the Trump administration approved the largest commercial sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine in four years, a decision that the Obama administration had previously balked at, fearing further escalation with Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is providing support to separatists in that country's eastern region.

In April 2017, Trump ordered the bombing of a government airfield in Syria, even though Russia is a key supporter of President Bashar Assad in that nation’s long-running civil war. 

White House insiders also note that the U.S. under Trump deployed American troops to Poland as part of a U.S.-NATO task force — something that was done in response to the military threat from Russia.

In response, critics highlight Trump’s past praise of Putin and the whole series of events being examined by Mueller. 

They also cite Trump’s controversial Oval Office meeting in May last year with Russia’s foreign minister and its then-ambassador to the U.S. During that encounter, Trump apparently called fired FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey tweets: 'We always emerge stronger from hard times' Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Lisa Page bombshell: FBI couldn’t prove Trump-Russia collusion before Mueller appointment MORE a “nut job” and revealed classified information pertaining to Israel. 

The sanctions announced on Thursday were specifically in relation to allegations of cyber activity. Some critics argued that the British attack deserved its own raft of sanctions.

“In a more normal presidency, we would be imposing, or studying the imposition, of numerous sanctions,” said Malcolm Nance, an intelligence analyst who is also the author of "The Plot of Hack America," a book about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. “And we would likely have done the same thing as Britain — started kicking diplomats out of the United States.”

The British government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, this week announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, following the apparent poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in southern England on March 4.  

Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, remain critically ill after the attack, and a police officer involved in the case has also been hospitalized. 

The White House was criticized for an initially hesitant response to those events.

Sanders declined to apportion blame to Russia at Monday’s media briefing, even after May had done so. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo working to rebuild ties with US diplomats: report NYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story Rubio defends Haley over curtains story: Example of media pushing bias MORE issued a more muscular statement hours later — but was fired the following morning.

Later comments, particularly from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyOvernight Defense: Air Force outlines plan for biggest force since end of Cold War | Trump admin slashes refugee cap | Mattis accuses Russia of meddling in Macedonia's NATO bid Nikki Haley accuses Russia of undermining international sanctions against North Korea NYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story MORE, were much stronger — even if, late on Wednesday, some Democrats were still dissatisfied.

“There is only one steering wheel in the car and it doesn’t matter if Nikki Haley or Rex Tillerson or others are condemning what Russia did in the U.K.,” Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellAuthorities: California man arrested after trying to stab GOP House candidate As we look back at 9/11, let’s recapture the spirit of uniting to protect America Dem strategist: NYT op-ed from anonymous official is 'self-serving' MORE (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. "If the president is not clear about it, he could continue down the wrong path with Russia.” 

Swalwell could not be reached for further comment on Thursday.

Voices more sympathetic to Trump praised the sanctions moves, however — and argued, in essence, that his detractors would never be satisfied. 

“Like many people I was alarmed by some of the things that were said on the campaign trail. But since taking office, he’s been very good,” said Luke Coffey, the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group. 

“There are some people who, no matter what President Trump does, will say he is not serious about European security,” he added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.