President Donald Trump outlined his options Thursday regarding the Russian spy ship that was recently spotted lurking off the coast of Long Island, but he didn’t say what he’d do about it.
At Thursday’s often heated news conference—heavy with criticism of the media and light on details surrounding the abrupt departure of his National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn over his secretive phone calls with Russia—the president told reporters that the Russian ship’s presence is “not good,” but said ordering the U.S. military to attack the ship would detract from his goal of improving American relations with Russia. He said that he prefers to do nothing about it, adding that he won’t disclose what decision he makes.
“The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water,” Trump said. “Everyone in this country’s going to say, ‘Oh, it’s so great.’ That’s not great… I would love to be able to get along with Russia.”
The Viktor Leonov, a Russian Navy intelligence warship that had previously been detected traveling up the East Coast, was seen Wednesday in international waters—12 nautical miles from shore—south of Montauk and about 30 miles from a U.S. Navy submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, officials said. The ship is outfitted with electronic surveillance equipment designed to intercept communications signals.
Like many adversarial nations, Russia and the United States have a long history of patrolling each other’s borders with planes and ships capable of eavesdropping, but officials said what made this week’s episode news was the location of the vessel. Russia had reportedly never sent a warship so close and so far north along the U.S. mainland.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a member of the foreign affairs committee whose East End district includes Montauk, has said the “activity is reportedly consistent with, but further north than, the ship’s past activity.” He also called it “a direct threat.”
A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman and Department of Defense (DOD) official said they were monitoring the ship, which by Thursday evening was reportedly off the coast of Virginia.
“We are aware of the vessel’s presence,” said Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a DOD spokeswoman. “It has not entered U.S. territorial waters. We respect freedom of navigation exercised by all nations beyond the territorial sea of a coastal State consistent with international law.”
The story was first reported Wednesday by Fox News—which quoted unnamed officials as saying the ship has since moved south—but despite that Rupert Murdoch-owned cable news channel’s GOP leanings, one local Republican lawmaker dismissed the story as liberal media fiction.
“Russian ship off LI,” Islip Town Councilwoman Trish Bergin, a former News 12 Long Island reporter, posted on Twitter. “They’ve been off our coast for decades! More sensation #fakenews from the left. If Hil was prez they’d still be there!”
U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), the ranking Democratic member of the homeland security committee, was among those wondering if Trump would do anything about the ship.
“It’s just another incident of… provocation by Russia and now it’s directed at America,” Rice told CNN. “And the question is, how is President Trump and his administration going to answer this?”
When Trump was asked Thursday about the ship, Russia’s recent ballistic missile test that may violate an arms treaty, and Russian warplanes recently buzzing a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea, the president maintained that he prefers not to announce military plans in advance.
“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,” he said. “Hopefully, I won’t have to do anything, but I’m not going to tell you.”
He also reiterated that he remains hopeful his administration can improve relations between Washington and Moscow while maintaining that he stood by the ouster of his national security adviser, Flynn, who resigned this week after reports surfaced that he failed to fully disclose to Vice President Michael Pence the nature of Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States before Trump’s inauguration.
“I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular,” Trump said. “It would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal.”
Later, he added: “Maybe I’m not going to be able to do a deal with Russia, but at least I will have tried.”