Geopolitics

The Back Story On Why Trump Approved Russian Spy Expulsion

The White House national security team presented Trump with three options, leading to an unprecedented purge of 60 Russian spies, which caught Moscow off-guard.

Trump last year at CIA headquarters
Trump last year at CIA headquarters
John Hudson, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey

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

U.S. intelligence officials, who had been pushing to dismantle Moscow's spy networks, believed that the president might decide against a recommendation to close the Russian Consulate in Seattle.

In conversations with European leaders, Donald 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 Friday, the president's national security team presented him with three options, and Trump's final decision set in motion an exodus of 60 Russian spies - a surprising rebuke of Moscow that even caught U.S. 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 United States' closest allies for almost a year: Despite Trump's reliably warm rhetoric toward Moscow and his steadfast reluctance to criticize 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 toward Russia in the Trump administration," said 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 antitank missiles to Ukraine. The president's heart doesn't seem to be in it, but for whatever reason, he's willing to go along with his advisers."

The three options presented to the president: "light, medium and heavy."

The Monday announcement grew out of a push by U.S. allies and the intelligence community for a strong retaliatory response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain. Shortly after the attack, Fiona Hill , a National Security Council senior director, began leading policy coordination meetings that culminated in a pivotal Friday meeting that included Defense Secretary Jim 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 administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

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

U.S. 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 U.S. counterintelligence is aware of well over 40 Russian spies operating in the United States who were not included in the initial purge. On Thursday, the Kremlin announced the expulsion of 60 U.S. 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," the official said, "you're throwing a solid punch but withholding a fist, and the president was persuaded by that option."

Historically, a similar purge has not occurred since 1986, when the Reagan administration expelled 55 Russian officials. The George W. Bush administration purged 50 in 2001 in response to the Robert Hanssen espionage case.

Once the White House position became clear, U.S. officials including McMaster and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan began calling foreign leaders, with the number of commitments from other countries growing from 10 last Friday to 16 on Monday morning to more than 25 on Thursday.

The U.S. expulsion of 60 officials far outmatches moves taken by other countries, an outcome that was far from clear last week when Trump congratulated Putin on his reelection and neglected to raise the poisoning incident, despite the guidance of his advisers.

It remains unclear whether Moscow's purge will end the diplomatic imbroglio or fuel a further tit-for-tat between the two adversaries.

On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States is "reviewing the details of the Russian action" and reserves the right to respond to "any Russian retaliation against the United States."

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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