President Donald Trump’s advisers are poised to recommend that he expel some 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.
Trump has not made a decision and is unlikely to do so before next week, one of the 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.
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.”
Regardless of the president’s own 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 U.S. election.