Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Expulsion of Russian Intelligence Officers
8:30 A.M. EDT
MS. RIGLER: Good morning. Thank you all for joining us. Just to reiterate, this is on background, attributed to a senior administration official. All information is embargoed until 9:00 a.m.
For your situational awareness but for reporting purposes, your briefers today are [senior administration officials].
Again, they will be referred to, from this briefing, as senior administration officials. They're each going to give brief opening remarks, and then we'll turn it over to Q&A.
So I'm going to go and hand it to our first briefer.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. It's a privilege to be here to speak to you.
Today, President Donald J. Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States, and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing.
The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia's use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.
Today's actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia's ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America's national security. With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences. The United States stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government's behavior.
Thank you. And with that, I'll turn it over to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning, everyone. Before I make my statement, I want to say something that's unrelated to what we're going to discuss today. I want to extend the United States' and my own personal condolences to the Russian people, the victims of this weekend's fire in Kemerovo. The news is heartbreaking. And to the family and friends of those who were loss, you have our deepest sympathies.
In all that I'm about to say, we want to draw a distinction between the Russian people and the actions of their government. On March 4th, the Russian government conducted an attack on America's closest ally. It put countless innocent lives, including the lives of children, at risk, and resulted in serious injury to three people, including a police officer.
This was a reckless attempt by the government to murder a British citizen and his daughter on British soil with a military-grade nerve agent. It cannot go unanswered. The Salisbury attack was only the latest in a long series of Russian efforts to undermine international peace and stability. The Russian government has shown malicious contempt for the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide. It has repeatedly sought to subvert and discredit Western institutions. These efforts are ongoing.
Today, we stand in solidarity with America's closest ally, the United Kingdom. To the Russian government, we say: When you attack our friends, you will face serious consequences. With today's action, we are removing a large number of the unacceptably numerous Russian intelligence officers who abide in the United States. This reduces Russia's ability to spy on American citizens, conduct covert operations on our soil, and threaten our national security.
We do not act alone. We take these actions in concert with similar steps by our allies and partners around the world. As we have continually stressed to Moscow, the door to dialogue is open. But if the Russian government wants to improve relations, it first needs to acknowledge its responsibility for this attack and cease its recklessly aggressive behavior.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning, everybody. Today, the United States is initiating the process to expel 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia's Mission to the United Nations in New York for abusing their privilege of residence under the United Nations Headquarters agreement. Specifically, the Deputy Secretary of State, acting under the authority of the Secretary of State, has determined that these 12 individuals have used their position at the Russian Mission to the U.N. as cover to engage in intelligence activities that are prejudicial to the national security of the United States.
The United Nations Headquarters Agreement provides a process for the expulsion of individuals who have abused their privilege of residence. The United States is following that process. Accordingly, the actions of the United States regarding the 12 Russians assigned to the Russian mission in New York are in response to the Russians' abuse of the privilege of residence, and these actions are consistent with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The expulsion of these Russian intelligence officers and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle will help curtail Russia's increasingly aggressive intelligence activities that we see every day here in the United States.
Additionally, with the expulsion, Russia's collection capabilities in the United States will be significantly minimized. The Russian government uses its diplomatic establishments as intelligence platforms from which they collect information to conduct destabilizing activities in the U.S. and around the world. They hide behind a veneer of diplomatic immunity while actively engaging in intelligence operations that undermine the country in which they are hosted and the democracies they seek to minimize.
It is widely acknowledged that well over 100 intelligence officers are currently in the U.S. This shall be a step in making the Russian government accountable for the diplomats they post in the countries they are hosted.
MS. RIGLER: Okay, now we are open for questions.
Q: Yes. Hi, my name is Bill Gertz with the Washington Free Beacon. Thanks for having us. Can you give us the total number of people that have been expelled? And can you identify them as GRU, FSB, or SVR?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, the total number today that we're talking about is 60. That includes 48 members of the Russian Embassy and Consulate in New York. I'm sorry -- 48 members of the Russian Embassy, and 12 at the U.N. So that brings the total number of expulsions to 60.
We're not going to comment on individual designations from the intelligence organizations in question.
Q: Hi. This is Hunter Walker from Yahoo! News. First off, thanks so much for doing the call. I'm wondering, when this chemical attack first happened, we saw the Press Secretary not directly blame Russia for the attack. We then saw the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, fired only a day after strongly blaming Russia for the attack.
Since then, we've also seen the President offer congratulations to Vladimir Putin on a reelection that some people think is undemocratic. Do you think, on the very least at the public front, the administration's actions are sending mixed messages that are dulling the impact of these steps you're announcing today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll answer that. First of all, it's just incorrect to say that that the Press Secretary initially declined to blame Russia. Sarah and the White House generally, and the administration generally, were making the effort to remain consistent with what our partners in the United Kingdom said.
This was at a moment when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had identified the nerve agent as Russia, but had not specified that the Russian government was necessarily responsible and had asked for an explanation from the Russian government and given them a period of time to answer. And we were acting in concert with our ally in order to let that period of time lapse and see what the response from the Russian government would be.
As we saw, it was a full denial, including a denial that they had anything to do with the agent itself. And as we've also subsequently seen, there's been attempts at disinformation and attempts to spread the blame in ways that are not credible by suggesting it might have been agents provided by other countries, even in one instance insinuated that it might have been the United States itself that provided the agent.
So given the non-credible nature of those explanations, I think it was reasonable for everyone to wait and see what the Russian government had to say initially. But given the non-credible nature of its explanations, in concert with our allies, we took the step of moving forward.
Q: Good morning. Can you hear me? This is Dmitri (inaudible). I wanted to ask, how much time do those people have to leave the United States?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Dmitri, thank you for the question. So the individuals and their families have been given seven days to leave the United States.
Q: Hello. So, by closing the consulate in Seattle, is the U.S. accusing Russia of spying on a U.S. Naval base? If so, how many other military bases is Russia spying on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These actions are not designated towards any particular or individual effort of collection by the Russian government. This is a holistic look at the Russian government's collection capabilities here in the U.S., and the consulate in Seattle is just a particular location that's been designated. But this is not, in any way, relative to any particular activity against any base or installation.
Q: Thank you. Jeff with (inaudible) again. So why are you closing the consulate, then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, Jeff, let me respond to that. We assessed -- in taking this step, we assessed the Russian consulate in Seattle to be part of this broader problem of an unacceptably high number of Russian intelligence operatives in the United States. We think it sends a very clear signal, particularly since, on the West Coast, the Russians will now have a degraded capability with regards to spying on our citizens.
We are prepared to take additional steps, if necessary. But we believe at the time, under the circumstances, this sends the message that's needed.
Q: Hi. This is Lalit Jha from PTI-Press Trust of India. Thank you doing this call. Do you think this is the revival of the Cold War between U.S. and Russia? And also, are you hoping to (inaudible) that is China? And finally, what is the message you are sending to countries like India which has friendly relations with both U.S. and Russia? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for that question. This is a response to the attack in Salisbury, but it's also a part of a broader set of actions that the Russians have taken for quite some time internationally -- a steady drumbeat of destabilizing and aggressive actions.
We are not intending to send any particular message to countries like India. We have a close and effective partnership with India. This is about a specific set of actions that are coming from Moscow, and our message is intended for the leaders of the Russian Federation.
Q: Hi, thanks for having this call. This is Charlie Spiering from Breitbart News. I just had a question. Has the President spoken with the Russian President about this attack and about the United States response? Or is it simply on a, sort of, administrative level?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President last spoke to President Putin on Tuesday, which is the call that we read out at the time. He has not spoken to him since. The action is being communicated to the Russian government at the appropriate level. This is something, though, that the President -- a decision that he was involved in from the beginning and that he personally made after several meetings with his meet last week, and was briefed on the ongoing preparations throughout the weekend.
So this is absolutely his decision and an administrative, coordinated one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And let me just add to that. We convoked the Russian ambassador this morning. And following standard diplomatic practice, we have notified the Russian Federation through the appropriate channels.
Q: But the President hasn't spoken directly to the Russian President about these attacks through phone calls or any other -- there's been no direct communications about these attacks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, the President last spoke to President Putin last Tuesday. He has not spoken to him since.
Q: Kris Anderson, AWPS News. I wanted to know what your thinking is on any potential response to this particular action on the part of Russia.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for the question. We're not going to speculate on what the response will be from the Russian government, but we do reserve the right to respond further to any Russian retaliation against our entirely justified action today.
Q: Yes, this is Bill Jones from Executive Intelligence Review. Coming to this conclusion, had you received a sample of the material which was used in this attack and confirming that it is this Novichok? There was some controversy over whether this actually existed. And secondly, has the Russian government, as they requested, ever received samples of this to make a declaration with regard to it? There was pretty much -- the Brits kept a lot close to the vest, and I'm just wondering how much has the U.S. independently been able to verify the accusations.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank for that question. Let me just say that we support the United Kingdom's decision not to provide such samples. The UK has accepted an offer from OPCW, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to assist in the investigation. Sharing samples with Russia would not provide further clarification on the origin of the agent used in the attack.
And let me also say Russia has had nearly a month at this point, and instead of explaining, has engaged in the usual obfuscations that we've seen from them in the past.
Q: Hi, this is Adam Shapiro with Fox Business. Two quick questions for you. You said that Russia conducted an attack on the U.S.'s closest ally; that this was a reckless attempt by the government to murder a British citizen. One, why is that not an act of war? And two, why are we not -- or are we -- going to sanction Vladimir Putin? Is Treasury looking at that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for those questions. I just want to reiterate our view of this, that we support the United Kingdom in how the UK has responded to and formulated its response to this attack. I'm not going to speculate at length on some of the other issues that you've raised. I think that what the Russians have done speaks for itself, and I think our response to that also speaks for itself.
Q: But isn't it an act of war? I mean, a government kills or attempts to kill a citizen of our closest ally. Do the NATO protocols require us for a stronger reaction to this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: NATO issued a unanimous statement on this, and I would refer you to that statement.
Q: And no sanctions against Putin from Treasury? Or are those in the works?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have any comment on that at this time.
Q: This is Bart Marcois from OpsLens.com. Can you characterize, please, the conversations the administration has had with leaders in the House and Senate? Have you briefed Republicans, Democrats, House and Senate on this already?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Bart. We are in the process of engaging with leaders from Congress, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives today.
Q: Hello, it's Michael Donhauser with German Press Agency in D.C. Just for clarification, all those 60 people which are going to be expelled are connected to the Russian intelligence community? There are no ordinary diplomats among them, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the question. That is correct. The individuals who are being sent back to Russia are intelligence officers being cloaked by their diplomatic positions here in the U.S., and are considered to be aggressive collection personnel here in the U.S.
Q: Hello. This is Marty van Duyne with News Net News. I have a question concerning the time element involved here with taking action based on some of the other questions that have come through here. Was the time that it took -- and understanding that it takes time to review all of the intelligence information -- was this delay from the time of the action over in the UK to today based on you checking the background of these agents that you are expelling? Because it just seems like it's been quite a bit of time here since the action in the UK and the U.S. now taking some action today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for that question. We are responding now after careful consideration of our options, and we're doing it in very close coordination with partners and allies.
I would just say, organizing something like this doesn't happen overnight. On the scale of what we're doing today with our allies is not something that happens in a couple of days. It's been three weeks since the attack, and we're looking, at this point, at more than a dozen allies who are acting in coordination with us. We're talking about 60 agents here in the United States.
So that takes time, and it needed to be done the right way. So I think the way that we've gone about it is how it needed to be handled.
Q: And to follow up on that, just briefly: In your coordination with the other countries, are they also taking some actions based on what took place in the UK?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll let them speak for themselves. I think you'll see today, and in the days ahead, actions on the parts of our allies.
Q: Hi. Jennifer Epstein from Bloomberg. I've seen some reports that some European allies are moving in the same direction as the UK, returning home some of their own diplomats who are in Russia. Are there any plans to pull any U.S. diplomats out of Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that question, Jennifer. No, there are not.
Q: Hello, and thank you. This is Katrina Manson from the Financial Times. May I check, if you're expelling the 60 intelligence officers, you had, if I understand correctly, said there are well over 100 Russian intelligence officers based in the U.S. Does this mean that after the expulsion, there will still be more than 40 Russian intelligence officers based in the U.S.? And how are you going to monitor and follow them? And what concerns do you have about them remaining in the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. Yes, this is a very significant action taken by the United States government to expel 60 known intelligence officers by the Russian intelligence services. It is true that there are more that remain here, but this is the first step, and the U.S. reserves the right to take further action in the future.
But the FBI intelligence services will be greatly enhanced with the elimination of these 60 intelligence officers. It will allow them to provide more protection of the American people -- its data, its information -- by having a reduced number of intelligence officers here in the U.S.
I think you'll also have to distinguish, as you heard earlier, the distinction between the intelligence officers that are here as part of the diplomatic missions, and those in the U.N.
Q: Good morning. Thank you. Yes, hi, good morning -- sorry about that. Thank you for taking my question. This is Kyle Mazza from UNF News.
I just wanted to ask if the UK Prime Minister has been briefed on this. And also, if you can reiterate the points that you made at the top, what subjects are President Trump taking action on. And also, has anyone else been briefed regarding these new actions from the United States in response to the attack?
Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me refer you to the White House for any questions that are specific to the President and his conversations with Prime Minister May. I'll just say that, broadly, we have been in very close coordination for many days now with members of the government in the United Kingdom and with governments of other allies and partners, particularly in Europe, but also in other parts of the world.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As my colleague said, we've been in close coordination with a lot of allies on this issue for a while now, and so there have been a lot of conversations going on, especially with our UK partners. And I refer you to them in terms of how much they (inaudible) to their Prime Minister. But the President did have a call with Prime Minister May last week.
MR. RIGLER: We have time for one last question. Thanks.
Q: Hi, this is Philippe Gelie with Le Figaro France here in D.C. I'd like to know how important was the coordination with U.S. allies in the deliberation of (inaudible). Would the U.S. have acted alone, or was it crucial that this would be a coordinated response? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Philippe, for that question. We have been in very close and continuous coordination with multiple allies and partners, as I said a moment ago, particularly in Europe, for several days now. Multiple conversations often on a daily basis. So we're latched up pretty tightly.
MS. RIGLER: Thank you all for joining us this morning. As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 9:00 a.m. All information form this backgrounder is attributed to a senior administration official. We're going to sign off now. Thank you.
Donald J. Trump, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Expulsion of Russian Intelligence Officers Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/335852