U.S. President Donald Trump said he has seen “no proof” of Russian state involvement in the poisoning of gravely ill Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny but he has no reason to doubt a German assessment that he was poisoned.
Speaking to reporters at the White House on September 4, Trump made his first public comments on the issue since Germany on September 2 said toxicology tests provided “unequivocal evidence” that the Russian opposition leader had been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.
“Based on what Germany is saying that seems to be the case,” Trump said. “I would be very angry if that’s the case.”
“I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic, it’s terrible, it shouldn’t happen,” Trump said, adding that he hasn’t received “any proof yet” but that “we’ll be sent a lot of documents” about the poisoning.
Earlier on September 4, the State Department expressed grave concern about the finding that Navalny was poisoned.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told Russian Ambassador Anatoliy Antonov that Moscow’s use the Soviet-style nerve agent would be a clear violation of its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“The Deputy Secretary urged Russia to cooperate fully with the international community’s investigation into this attack,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
U.S. officials have previously said Washington is working with allies to investigate the poisoning and hold those responsible accountable.
So far, Russian authorities have resorted to obfuscation and denial in their response to Navalny’s case and have refused to open a criminal investigation into the allegation that the opposition politician was poisoned, saying that no hard evidence has been found.
Navalny, 44, fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20, forcing the plane he was traveling on to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he spent two days in hospital before being evacuated to Germany. He is now on a respirator and under medically induced coma in an intensive-care unit at Charite Hospital in Berlin.
Germany is seeking to forge a joint reaction with its EU and NATO partners against Russia, after Chancellor Angela Merkel described Navalny’s case as an “attempted murder by poisoning.”
The EU has announced it is considering sanctions on Russia and NATO called a defiant Russia to “fully cooperate” with an “impartial international” probe to be led by the global Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels on September 4 following a special session of the military alliance’s ambassadors that Russia “now has serious questions it must answer.”
“There is proof beyond doubt that Mr. Navalny was poisoned using a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok group,” Stoltenberg said. “Any use of chemical weapons shows a total disrespect for human lives and is an unacceptable breach of international norms and rules.”
Trump said he understood there may be a European desire to respond to Russia, but noted he had a good relationship with President Vladimir Putin and “the most important thing” is to reach an agreement with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation.
But he said he has been “tougher on Russia than anybody else by far.”
Trump also reiterated his long-standing disagreement with Germany over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an underwater Baltic Sea pipeline nearing completion that would bring gas from Russia to Germany.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on the gas project, drawing criticism from Berlin and European allies.
Pressure is also mounting on Merkel at home to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project.
Navalny’s poisoning has echoes with the case of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury. A British investigation determined that the Skripals had been poisoned with Novichok and alleged that the attack was carried out by Russian state agents.
The British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow refused to cooperate with an investigation into the Skripal poisoning. The United States and other European states expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in a coordinated response.
From the beginning, allies of Navalny have said that the Russian state was behind the poisoning.
Navalny, who has been attacked and arrested several times in the past, is a leading politician, anti-corruption campaigner, and protest leader.
With reporting by AFP and dpaPrint