President Donald Trump joked that he might order the U.S. military to sink the Russian spy ship traveling south off the Atlantic coast, then later said he wouldn’t, and then said he hoped he would not have to retaliate in any form. Whatever option he chooses, he said, he won’t announce it ahead of time.
“The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water,” Trump told reporters in a Thursday press conference. He was responding to questions about his administration’s relations with Russia and to allegations that he had so far responded weakly to evidence of Moscow’s interference in American politics. “Everyone in this country’s going to say, ‘Oh, it’s so great.’ That’s not great. That’s not great. I would love to be able to get along with Russia.”
Trump was referring to the Russian intelligence ship Viktor Leonov, spotted by the U.S. Navy some 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, as Fox News first reported Wednesday. Its likely interest was the U.S. submarine base at Groton. On Thursday morning, Pentagon officials said the ship was traveling south past Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Va.
The Russian ship’s presence is the latest in a series of military provocations by President Vladimir Putin since the new year. Trump said he did not think Putin was testing him.
“No, I don’t think so. I think Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal,” Trump said. “Because, look, it would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal.”
Trump did not specify what such a deal might be about. His administration reportedly is interested in renegotiating U.S. sanctions on Russia.
The president declined to say what, if anything, he planned to do about the spy ship, echoing a declaration on the 2016 campaign trail that he would not have announced in advance the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Mosul.
“I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response,” Trump said. “I don’t say I’m going into Mosul in four months. ‘We are going to attack Mosul in four months.’ Then three months later, ‘We are going to attack Mosul in one month.’ ‘Next week, we are going to attack Mosul.’”
“In the meantime, Mosul is very, very difficult. Do you know why? Because I don’t talk about military, and I don’t talk about certain other things. You’re going to be surprised to hear that. And by the way, my whole campaign, I’d say that. So I don’t have to tell you. I don’t want to be one of these guys that say, ‘Yes, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea.”
“Wait a minute,” Trump continued, as a reporter tried to ask a follow-up question. “I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea. And I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do with Iran. You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question. So when you ask me what am I going to do with a ship, the Russian ship as an example, I’m not going to tell you. But hopefully, I won’t have to do anything, but I’m not going to tell you.”
Last year, Trump criticized the Obama administration’s response to military provocations by Russia and Iran. Already, in his first month there have been several incidents of Russian and Iranian military actions testing their boundaries, with no apparent American military responses.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn this month said Iran was being put “on notice” after alleging Iran was behind a Houthi suicide attack on a Saudi ship in the Yemen conflict, but he and White House officials left that warning purposefully vague. He also condemned Iran’s medium-range missile test in January. For that, one day later the Trump administration issued additional sanctions on about a dozen people and organizations the Treasury Department said were related to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Russian Su-24 fighter jets buzzed the destroyer USS Porter in the Black Sea on Friday. Russia also has increased fly-bys and similar activity U.S. allies, including stepped up bomber patrols out of the north, around Norway, Defense One reported last month. And Russian forces also recently deployed a ground-based cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.