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White House denies Trump is sending mixed messages to Moscow, but some see ‘incoherence’

White House denies Trump is sending mixed messages to Moscow, but some see ‘incoherence’

WASHINGTON — The White House announced on Monday that Russia’s consulate in Seattle is being closed and that 60 of the country’s diplomats will be expelled from the United States as a response to the Kremlin’s suspected role in the poisoning of a Russian defector in Britain earlier this month. The United Kingdom and 13 other countries said they would also send Russian diplomats home.

According to one of the senior administration officials who announced the U.S. action on a conference call with reporters, the expulsions will “help curtail Russia’s increasingly aggressive intelligence activities.” The official cited Moscow’s use of its “diplomatic establishments as intelligence platforms from which they collect information and conduct destabilizing activities in the U.S. and around the world.” The officials said Russia’s consulate in Seattle was shut down due to its “proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing,” adding that the 60 diplomats are among “over 100” Russian intelligence officers currently in this country. The officials described the move as a “clear signal” to Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country’s aggression will not be tolerated.

But some experts who talked to Yahoo News said President Trump has sent out confusing signals  to Moscow, part of a pattern dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign, when he seemed eager to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer turned double agent, was poisoned along with his daughter in the British city of Salisbury on March 4. The two remain in critical condition. Britain’s government has blamed the attack on the Kremlin, which has denied any role in the poisoning.

The Trump administration had  faced criticism over what some in the national security community regarded as a lackadaisical response to the attack. On March 12, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the attack on Skripal an “outrage” and offered the “fullest condemnation.” But Sanders declined to name Russia as the perpetrator even when the Associated Press’ Zeke Miller pointed out that the British government had declared it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin had played a role in the poisoning.

“Right now, we are standing with our U.K. ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that,” Sanders said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the first top U.S. official to blame the attack on he Kremlin, saying “it appears that it clearly came from Russia.” Tillerson was fired the next day, and his apparent break with the White House line was said to have played a role in his dismissal, although Trump had been reported for months to have been unhappy with his secretary of state.

In Trump’s first conversation with Putin after the attack on March 21, he made no mention of the attack on Skripal. Instead, he congratulated Putin on his victory in what most outside commentators consider a sham election. It was widely reported that Trump’s briefing paper for the call included an all-caps warning, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

On the conference call announcing the expulsion of the diplomats, Yahoo News asked whether the administration was sending “a mixed message” to the Kremlin, in following up this conciliatory gesture with Monday’s mass expulsion. A senior official disputed the idea that Sanders was slow to accuse Russia in the assassination attempt, suggesting that the White House was following Britain’s lead.

“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,” the official explained. “This was at a moment when the prime minister of the United Kingdom had identified the nerve agent as Russian but had not specified that the Russian government was necessarily responsible.”

 blank&quot;>was “highly likely” the Kremlin was responsible</a>. However, May stopped short of definitively laying bl

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