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Morning News Brief: U.S. Expels Russian Officials

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 27, 2018 7:29 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Dozens of Russian intelligence officers now have less than a week to leave the country. The White House has told 60 Russian diplomats to get out.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, and that is a lot. It's a big number. It's actually the largest-ever expulsion of Russians from the United States, and that does indeed include the Cold War. So this is part of a growing international response to the attempted murder of a spy. A former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were poisoned. Both of them fell into a coma earlier this month in Britain. And authorities say the two were poisoned by a nerve agent developed in Moscow. Since then, more than 20 other countries have also kicked out Russian diplomats. Here's White House spokesperson Raj Shah yesterday.

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RAJ SHAH: With these steps, the U.S. and our allies and partners around the world make clear to Russia that actions have consequences.

GREENE: But it's worth asking what those consequences actually mean if you consider they're coming from President Trump, who has frequently and recently praised Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

KING: All right, we're going to get into all of this with NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim.

Good morning, guys.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, Scott, this seems like a pretty big, or at least a fairly dramatic, move by the White House. Is it signaling a shift in tone toward Russia?

HORSLEY: Well, Noel, it certainly seems like a shift. I mean, remember, just a week ago today, President Trump was on the telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, congratulating Putin for his re-election win in a contest that was marred by forced voting and ballot box stuffing. Trump said in a phone call he was looking ahead to what he said was a likely meeting with Putin in the not-too-distant future. There was no talk on that call about the Skripal poisoning or, for that matter, about Russia's meddling in the U.S. election. So it was a very different tone we were hearing from the White House yesterday. We had the Russian ambassador summoned, instructions for these diplomats to pack their bags within a week. They're also closing the Russian Consulate in Seattle, which the administration feared could have been used as a base for spying on a nearby submarine base as well as Boeing's operations.

KING: Do we have a sense of why the White House picked this moment to retaliate against Russia? You know, our allies in Europe were doing the same thing. Do you think that they put some pressure on the U.S. to make this move, or was this more of a collaborative effort?

HORSLEY: Even the White House spokesman, Raj Shah, was asked about the timing yesterday because three weeks have passed since the poisoning, and 11 days had passed since the allies came out with a joint statement saying Russia was likely responsible for that poisoning. Shah's explanation for the delay was simply that it takes time to coordinate an international response like this and that perhaps coordinated action, you know, carries more weight than the U.S. acting alone. One thing the White House did say is that these moves were ordered by President Trump. But the president himself has been silent. We haven't seen him speak about Russia.

KING: Let's talk about Russia. Lucian, what's been the response so far from the Kremlin?

KIM: Well, the top news here in Russia is still the fire at a mall in Siberia that killed more than 60 people.

KING: Yeah.

KIM: ...Many of them children. President Putin was out there today. And, in fact, the Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman is accusing European and U.S. leaders of being callous by announcing what she called unjustified aggression on the same day that Russians were mourning those victims. As for the Kremlin, President Putin's spokesman said they regret the expulsions and that after careful examination, Putin himself will personally decide on how to respond.

KING: And what do we think that might look like?

KIM: It's hard to tell. I mean, the Kremlin has always said it responds reciprocally to these kind of actions. After Britain expelled 23 Russians earlier this month, Russia waited three days before expelling the same amount of British diplomats. But then it also closed the British Council, which is a very popular cultural institute - institution here in Moscow. The U.S. diplomatic presence here in Russia has already been severely cut. That happened last summer when Putin said the U.S. had to cut staff by more than 700 employees. So consular services in Russia are already working on a shoestring. The U.S. has three consulates outside of Moscow, so it's possible they could be affected. And there are also worries that the Anglo-American School here in Moscow might become a target.

KING: What does it mean when consular services are stretched thin? What are the actual impacts for people who live in Russia?

KIM: These are very real impacts. It means that people trying to get visas, especially people trying to travel for pleasure, for business, students - that they're having much longer wait times. People outside of Moscow who would normally go to their local consulate now have to travel to Moscow. It's basically slowed down visa applications to, really, a crawl. And many Russians are actually going abroad to apply for U.S. visas.

KING: That's interesting. So it isn't just a symbolic move.

KIM: No. And it - well, the irony of it is it actually affects Russian citizens more than any Americans.

KING: Scott, what do you think the end goal is here for the White House? Do we have a sense that this signals the Trump administration is getting more hawkish about Russia and its attempts to interfere in the U.S.?

HORSLEY: You know, we've seen sort of mixed signals from the Trump administration. On the one hand, we have actions like the one taken yesterday with regard to these diplomats or the sanctions that were announced recently by the Treasury Department against those who were involved in meddling with the U.S. election. On the other hand, you have the president saying he wants to meet with Putin to discuss issues of mutual concern, like North Korea. White House spokesman Raj Shah says there is no such meeting on the calendar right now. And he says while the administration would still like to see better relations with Russia, Moscow's actions make that difficult. One thing to note - John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser, has been much more hawkish towards Russia than the president has been. We'll see if he carries more influence than the - the people who wrote do not congratulate on the president's briefing book last week.

KING: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thank you, guys.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KIM: Thank you.

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KING: All right, we're going to talk now about the 2020 census and a tiny change with major implications.

GREENE: Yeah, the Commerce Department announced late last night that the census is going to again ask about citizenship. The census hasn't asked every household in the U.S. about citizenship status since 1950. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wants to bring that back. He says this is the best way to make sure no one violates the Voting Rights Act. But critics say this is going to have a negative impact on undocumented immigrants, their families and also the census count itself. In response to this, California's attorney general is planning to sue the Trump administration to stop this question from being added. And other lawsuits are likely in the works.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related, and he joins us now from New York.

Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right, so let's start with the impact of this question on the census about citizenship. What kind of effect would adding the question have on the resources of the census department?

WANG: Well, if the citizenship question on the 2020 census discourages people from answering the questions and participating, which is a possibility that Commerce Secretary Ross has acknowledged in his memo, then those people are not counted, so that decreases the headcount. In states, that could mean fewer seats in the House of Representatives after Congress is reapportioned after 2020. In cities and towns, that could mean fewer federal dollars gets distributed to them. And another thing to keep in mind is that census data lasts for 10 years. And so risking an inaccurate count about who really lives in the U.S. - that affects health research, business planning and even road repair.

KING: A simple but important question - why would asking about citizenship lead to fewer people actually filling out the census form?

WANG: Well, the fear is from critics - is that there already is a growing distrust in giving the federal government personal information. The Census Bureau has been dealing with this for decades. And given the current anti-immigrant sentiment, questions about the Trump administration and its policies, a lot of people are worried. Civil rights advocates, even mayors from both sides of the aisle are worried that a citizenship question would further discourage people from wanting to participate at all.

KING: Some of the same critics and advocates that you mentioned are calling this a political move to support Republican gerrymandering. What do they mean by that?

WANG: Well, census data is used for redistricting.

KING: OK.

WANG: And many immigrants live in blue states, urban areas. If they don't participate, there could be a significant undercount in these blue areas. And the argument is that that could make it easier to carve out districts that are favorable to Republicans.

KING: The attorney general in California says he's going to sue, that the citizenship question is illegal. What laws exactly would it violate?

WANG: Well, the California state attorney general - he's alleging that it would violate the Constitution because the Constitution requires an actual enumeration, a headcount every 10 years. And so if you discourage any people from participating, that means that the government can't fulfill its constitutional responsibility of doing that headcount. It also raises questions about the unusual timing of this request from the Justice Department, which triggered all of this. It came nine months after the Census Bureau finalized the question topics for the 2020 census. And so the attorney - state attorney general in California says that is in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome.

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