Aides Urge Trump to Expel Russian Envoys Over U.K. Attack

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s advisers will recommend that he expel scores of Russian diplomats from the U.S. in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the U.K., a person familiar with the matter said.

The advisers reached the preliminary recommendations at a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday and honed them on Friday in a gathering that included Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

A decision is expected to be announced on Monday, the two people said.

A battle within the White House over how to best address the provocations of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been intensifying. The internal divisions flared this week after Trump congratulated Putin on his recent re-election without first reviewing written guidance that he not do so, a person familiar with the matter said.

Trump has been reshaping his national security staff. On Thursday, he announced the departure of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who favored a tougher public posture toward Putin, and announced that he would replace him with John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations known for his hawkish views. That move came just a week after the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also took a more combative stance toward Russia, and nominated Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, to replace him.

Trump faces pressure to take a stronger stance against Putin from Congress, which passed legislation in August giving lawmakers the power to block the president from lifting punitive measures imposed after Russia’s intervention in 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.

Trump, who’s aware of the disagreement among his aides, didn’t mention such sensitive issues as the U.K. poisoning or continuing concerns over Russian interference in American elections during a 30-minute call with Putin.

Relationship Priority

Trump has been willing to adopt increasingly tough policy stances on Russia. But 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.

Trump defended his call with Putin on Twitter Wednesday, dismissing those who “wanted me to excoriate him.” “They are wrong!” Trump wrote. “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this month condemned Russia for the nerve agent attack that critically injured the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. A British police officer was also hospitalized. May ordered 23 Russians -- who she said were undeclared spies -- to leave Britain in retaliation. She has sought the cooperation of other countries in her campaign to punish Moscow.

Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Friday night that "the United States is considering a range of options to respond to Russia’s outrageous actions in the U.K., both to demonstrate our solidarity with our ally and to hold Russia accountable for its clear breach of international norms and agreements."

She added that the State Department “doesn’t have any actions to announce today.”

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, his administration sees the Kremlin as a threat.

A national defense strategy assembled by the Pentagon under Defense Secretary James Mattis and publicly summarized in January described China and Russia as the top global adversaries of the U.S. Last week, the administration slapped financial sanctions against a St. Petersburg-based internet “troll farm” and its alleged owner -- a close Putin ally -- whom Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted over a covert social media campaign to influence the 2016 election.

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