Touching off the Kremlin’s most serious diplomatic confrontation with Washington since President Trump took office six months ago, President Vladimir Putin announced Sunday that 775 American embassy and consulate staffers would be tossed out – the biggest such expulsion in years by an order of magnitude – in response to a package of sanctions awaiting Trump’s signature.
“I decided it’s time for us to show we do not intend to leave U.S. actions unanswered,” the Russian leader said in remarks aired in a prime-time evening interview on “Vesti,” a program on the Rossiya 1 state-run channel.
The expulsions would bring the number of U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia to 455, the same number that Russia has in the United States. In addition to the embassy in Moscow, the U.S. maintains consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostock and Yekaterinburg.
Before Putin’s announcement, the White House had indicated that Trump will sign the sanctions bill, even though the president has for months expressed uncertainty over Russia’s involvement in what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a concerted campaign of Kremlin interference meant to throw the election to Trump.
Putin’s comments came hours after a senior Russian envoy had hinted at additional retaliation for an “unacceptable” U.S. sanctions measure overwhelmingly approved last week by the Senate, following a similarly lopsided endorsement by the House of Representatives.
In an interview aired in the U.S. shortly before Putin spoke on Russian TV, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had sharply denounced the sanctions bill, calling it “unacceptable”and “the last straw.”
“This retaliation is long, long overdue,” the envoy said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer, we will respond in kind,” he said. “We will mirror this. We will retaliate.”
Trump, who was at his Virginia golf course as the diplomatic confrontation erupted, has repeatedly called multiple investigations as to whether Russia colluded with his campaign a “witch hunt.” Ryabkov used similar language to describe the probes.
“The very fact that someone saw some Russian or Russians somewhere is now close to a criminal act – I think it’s ridiculous,” he said in the ABC interview. “It’s degrading for such a great country as the United States.”
Although he repeated a blanket denial of Kremlin involvement in the election, Ryabkov did not directly address a question as to whether Moscow had given the Trump camp illegally obtained information that was detrimental to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent.
“All the information we provide to anyone can be easily found in open sources,” he said.
The latest round of internal turbulence at the White House carries potential repercussions for the Russia investigations being carried out by Robert Mueller, the FBI and Congress. Trump is replacing his ousted chief of staff, Reince Priebus, with Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.
That gave rise to immediate speculation that the president might try to appoint Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from Russia-related matters, as Kelly’s replacement. Such a step would theoretically leave Trump free to appoint a new attorney general who was empowered to oversee the Russia probe, including the ability to fire the special counsel.
Sessions recused himself earlier this year after it emerged that he had failed to report contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States while advising the Trump campaign. Over the past week, Trump has repeatedly attacked the attorney general on Twitter for his recusal, in what was widely viewed as an attempt to push Sessions into resigning.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have signaled that any move to sideline Sessions — either by firing him or seeking to transfer him to a new post — would be regarded with suspicion. More such warnings came Sunday.
Any move to fill Kelly’s job with the attorney general is “up to Jeff Sessions and the president,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But she added that if Trump acted because of Sessions’ “correct decision to recuse himself, I think that’s a mistake.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), declared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that any move against Mueller would likely backfire badly. Feinstein said that if Trump tried to fire the special counsel, it “could well be the beginning of the end of his presidency.”
The Trump administration had fought to prevent the sanctions bill’s passage, but the president was seen as having little choice but to sign it because the Russia investigations have reached deeper into the White House and touched members of his family. He could veto the measure, but because the bill passed by such large margins, Congress could then override him.
Staff writer King reported from Washington and special correspondent Ayres from Moscow.