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Trump Administration Expelling 60 Russian Diplomats After Use Of Nerve Agent In U.K.


The Trump administration today said it is expelling 60 Russian diplomats and ordering the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. Both steps are part of a coordinated international response to what the administration says was Russia's poisoning of a former spy in the United Kingdom. The White House says President Trump ordered the expulsion despite his friendly call less than a week ago with Russian President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House to talk through this latest development. Hey, Scott.


CHANG: So these are pretty dramatic moves not just in the U.S. but in other Western countries which made similar announcements. Why is this coordinated response against Russia happening now?

HORSLEY: You know, it was dramatic. Russia's ambassador here in the U.S. was summoned to the State Department and told that 60 Russian intelligence officers would have to pack their bags and get out within a week. That is the largest such expulsion in U.S. history. And the administration also ordered the closing of that Seattle consulate, which officials worried could have served as a listening post for Russia to spy on a nearby submarine base as well as Boeing's operations in the area.

So we've also seen the Western allies following suit. And White House spokesman Raj Shah says all of this was a response to the Russian attack on its former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month.


RAJ SHAH: With these steps, the U.S. and our allies and partners around the world make clear to Russia that actions have consequences.

HORSLEY: British Prime Minister Theresa May praised the solidarity and said the Western allies are not going to tolerate Russia's efforts to flout international law.

CHANG: And that sounds like a very different tone from the one President Trump adopted when he spoke last week with Putin.

HORSLEY: Yes. When the president picked up the phone last Tuesday, Putin had just won re-election in a contest that was marred by ballot box stuffing and forced voting. Here's how Trump described that conversation to reporters.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future.

HORSLEY: The White House says Trump made no mention in that call of the Skripal poisoning nor Russia's meddling in the U.S. election. And we learned later that the president's decision to congratulate Putin came over the objection and despite the specific instructions of his national security advisers.

CHANG: There seems to be a disconnect between some of the tough moves made by the Trump administration and the rhetoric employed by President Trump himself. How do you explain that disconnect?

HORSLEY: The White House says this was the president's decision today to order the expulsion of these Russian diplomats. And just a couple weeks ago, we had the Treasury Department ordering fresh sanctions on Russian individuals and organizations that were allegedly involved in interfering with the U.S. election.

But at the same time, we have the president, who seems reluctant to personally call out Putin and who says he wants to work with the Russian leader on shared concerns like North Korea. Here's how White House spokesman Raj Shah tried to square that. He put the apparent contradictions at Russia's feet.


SHAH: We want to have a cooperative relationship. The president wants to work with Russia. But their actions sometimes don't allow that to happen. The poisoning in the U.K. was a very brazen action. It was a reckless action. It endangered not just two individuals who were poisoned but many civilians, many innocent civilians.

HORSLEY: The U.K. has said that poisoning involved a military-grade nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union. For its part, Russia denies any involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.