After British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that authorities in the U.K. highly suspected Russia of perpetrating the nerve agent attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the United States and its European allies issued a joint response: Each country designated a particular number of Russians to expel.
But it turns out that President Donald Trump did not wish to lead in the effort, desiring instead to simply ‘match’ what other countries were doing.
And when he discovered through the news media that the U.S. had expelled more diplomats than any of its allies, he was furious.
President Trump seemed distracted in March as his aides briefed him at his Mar-a-Lago resort on the administration’s plan to expel 60 Russian diplomats and suspected spies.
The United States, they explained, would be ousting roughly the same number of Russians as its European allies — part of a coordinated move to punish Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil.
“We’ll match their numbers,” Trump instructed, according to a senior administration official. “We’re not taking the lead. We’re matching.”
But the U.S. did not match the numbers of individual countries, and though officials briefing Trump assured him that the United States booted roughly the same number of diplomats in total as its European allies, Trump was not placated.
“I don’t care about the total!” the administration official recalled Trump screaming. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions. “There were curse words,” the official said, “a lot of curse words.”
Trump’s response comes as no real surprise: His administration has struggled from the beginning to present a unified approach to Russia, with a president who is often at odds with members of his own Cabinet on Russian policy issues.
Angela Stent -- a Russian analyst, former White House official and professor at Georgetown University -- noted the divergence of views:
“This is a man who if he had his druthers would be pursuing a much more open and friendly policy with Russia ... The United States essentially has three Russia policies: the president’s, the executive branch’s and Congress’s.”
And the Russian diplomat situation was no different.
First, White House officials had to convince the president that Russia was behind the chemical attack in the U.K. -- “a fact that some aides attributed to his contrarian personality and tendency to look for deeper conspiracies”.
“There was a sense that we couldn’t be the only ones not to concede to reality,” the Trump adviser said.
The next task was convincing Trump that he should punish Putin in coordination with the Europeans. “Why are you asking me to do this?” Trump asked in a call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, according to a senior White House official. “What’s Germany going to do? What about France?”
He was insistent that the poisoning in the English city of Salisbury was largely a European problem and that the allies should take the lead in moving against Russia.
However, following Trump’s initial response to his administration’s actions, the president has put forth a harsher stance toward Russia -- specifically following the most recent alleged chemical attack in Syria, after which Trump tweeted that Russia should prepare for U.S. missiles that would be “be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”
The U.S. responded with a missile strike Saturday, which Trump followed with a declaration of “Mission accomplished”.