How Trump got to 'yes' on the US' biggest purge of Russian spies

WASHINGTON • In the days leading up to the largest expulsion of Russian spies in US history, few people inside or outside the Trump administration knew exactly what the President would do.

US intelligence officials, who had been pushing to dismantle Moscow's spy networks, believed that Mr Donald Trump might decide against a recommendation to close the Russian consulate in Seattle.

In conversations with European leaders, Mr Trump said the United States was not interested in expelling spies in response to the poisoning of a Russian spy if other countries were not doing the same.

But on March 23, the President's national security team presented him with three options, and Mr Trump's final decision set in motion an exodus of 60 Russian spies - a surprising rebuke of Moscow that caught even US allies off guard.

"We received signals that expulsions were coming, but the numbers surprised us," said a senior European diplomat based in Washington. "It was very high."

The uncertainty surrounding the President's decision reflected a phenomenon that has baffled the US' closest allies for almost a year: Despite Mr Trump's reliably warm rhetoric towards Moscow and his steadfast reluctance to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration has, at multiple times, taken aggressive action against Russia at the recommendation of the President's top aides.

"This fits the pattern of our policy towards Russia in the Trump administration," said Mr John Herbst, a Russia scholar at the Atlantic Council. "If you just look at policy, this administration has taken steps the Obama administration was not willing to, such as supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The President's heart doesn't seem to be in it, but for whatever reason, he is willing to go along with his advisers."


The Monday announcement grew out of a push by US allies and the intelligence community for a strong retaliatory response to the poisoning of Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain.

Shortly after the attack, Ms Fiona Hill, a National Security Council senior director, began leading policy coordination meetings that culminated in a pivotal March 23 meeting that included Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, FBI director Christopher Wray and director of national intelligence Daniel Coats, among other top officials.

The three options presented to the President were described as "light, medium and heavy" by one official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

The "light" option called for expelling roughly 30 spies while leaving the Seattle consulate intact, two officials said. The "medium" option, which Mr Trump ultimately chose, expelled 48 officials at the embassy in Washington and 12 at the United Nations mission in New York, and shuttered the Seattle consulate.

US officials declined to spell out the "heavy" option, to avoid previewing steps the President could take in response to Moscow's retaliation. But one official noted that US counterintelligence is aware of well over 40 Russian spies operating in the US who were not included in the initial purge. On Thursday, the Kremlin announced the expulsion of 60 US officials.

During the meeting, the President's aides described the options to him in broad terms and did not give a precise number of spies for the "medium" scenario, leaving the head count to subordinates, one official said. The official described the internal debate using boxing metaphors. "If you go heavy now and the Russians really retaliate, we would be more limited in what we can do later," the official said. "With the medium option, you are throwing a solid punch but withholding a fist, and the President was persuaded by that option."

Once the White House position became clear, US officials began calling foreign leaders, with the number of commitments from other countries growing from 10 on March 23 to more than 25 on Thursday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline 'How Trump got to 'yes' on the US' biggest purge of Russian spies'. Print Edition | Subscribe