President Donald Trump is poised to take his most aggressive actions yet against Russia on Monday, when he’s likely to announce the expulsion of dozens of diplomats in response to the nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy living in the U.K.
The move, all but certain to provoke retaliation by President Vladimir Putin’s government, comes as Trump has tried to maintain at least the semblance of a constructive relationship with the Russian leader.
But the expulsions will align Trump with European allies who feel threatened by Russia and have had a turbulent relationship with the U.S. president, including U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Several European countries are expected to announce their own expulsions of Russian diplomats in concert with the U.S.
While U.S. policy toward Russia has gradually grown more strident in recent months, the president’s critics say he has been slow to respond to Putin’s provocations. Some have drawn a connection to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government as well as Trump’s past business relationships with Russian figures.
Trump has denied any campaign collusion and as recently as Wednesday advocated for an amicable relationship with Russia. “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said on Twitter.
The U.S. considers the diplomats it plans to expel to be spies, carrying out intelligence activities under cover as embassy staff, one person familiar with the matter said. Trump’s action would follow a similar move by May, who ordered 23 Russians that she said were spies to leave Britain over the attack on the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter.
“The United States stands firmly with the United Kingdom in condemning Russia’s outrageous action,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement on Saturday. “The president is always considering options to hold Russia accountable in response to its malign activities.”
But Putin has proven expert at exploiting even the slightest divisions among Western allies, and Trump is concerned that European capitals may not follow through on promises to tighten the screws on the Kremlin. The president regards Germany, in particular, as wobbly because of its dependence on Russian fuel supplies.
Trump’s National Security Council reached recommendations for a U.S. response to the U.K. attack at a meeting on Wednesday and presented the proposals to him on Friday. Trump discussed the issue that day with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, FBI Director Chris Wray, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others, two people familiar with the talks said.
All of the people who discussed the president’s deliberations asked not to be identified. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
A division within the White House over how to confront Putin flared this week after Trump called the Russian president on Tuesday and congratulated him for winning an election regarded in the West as largely fraudulent. The praise drew criticism from Congress and ran contrary to written talking points for the call that advised Trump not to congratulate the Russian leader, a person familiar with the matter said. Trump didn’t read the guidance.
Trump meanwhile has reshaped his national security staff. On Thursday, he announced he would replace McMaster, who favored a tougher public posture toward Putin, with John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations who has promoted military action against Iraq, Iran and North Korea. That move came just a week after the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had also adopted a more confrontational stance toward Russia, and nominated Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, to replace him.
Congress has pressured Trump to get tougher on Putin and passed legislation in August giving lawmakers the power to block the president from lifting punitive U.S. measures imposed after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Substantively, Washington’s policy toward Russia has become tougher in recent months, though Trump’s critics say he has dragged his feet in responding to Putin’s provocations.
The president places a priority on maintaining a personal relationship with the Russian president, won’t publicly attack him, and doesn’t see any benefit to the U.S. in confronting Putin in one-on-one encounters, one administration official said Thursday. But Russia’s brazen aggression is compelling a U.S. response.
The attack against Skripal employed a nerve agent called “Novichok” manufactured by the Soviet Union, according to the U.K. government. May earlier this month condemned Russia for the apparent assassination attempt, which critically injured the former Russian spy and his daughter. A British police officer was also hospitalized.
Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, his administration regards the Kremlin as a threat.
A national defense strategy assembled by the Pentagon under Mattis and publicly summarized in January described China and Russia as the top global adversaries of the U.S. Earlier this month, the administration slapped financial sanctions against a St. Petersburg-based internet “troll farm” and its alleged owner — a close Putin ally — whom Mueller indicted over a covert social media campaign to influence the 2016 election.
— With assistance by Margaret Talev, and Ilya Arkhipov