SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. this week. Russia has sent packing 60 U.S. diplomats. The expulsions - Americans, Britons and Europeans from Russia and Russian expulsions in response - come after the poisoning in London of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which the U.S. and NATO blame on Russian agents. John Hudson is national security reporter for The Washington Post, and he's in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN HUDSON: Great to be here.
SIMON: I gather this is the largest expulsion of Russians in U.S. history. So is President Trump just over Vladimir Putin?
HUDSON: Yeah. I mean, this has definitely been part of a precipitatingly worse relationship between the United States and Moscow. We haven't had a similar expulsion since 1985, when Reagan expelled 55. 2001 - George W. Bush expelled about 50. And so this is quite the dramatic and historical move carried out by the president.
SIMON: Well, what happened to change his mind, if that's what's happened?
HUDSON: Well, specifically, we're dealing with the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain - the alleged poisoning involving a Russian nerve agent. And this absolutely blindsided our ally Britain. And the intelligence community, which has been angling for a tough and aggressive retaliatory response against Russian spy networks in the United States for several months, pushed for this, as well as U.S. allies, culminating in an important Friday meeting last week where the options were presented to the president.
SIMON: And the president chose the toughest one, I gather.
HUDSON: He chose the medium option, actually.
HUDSON: There was a light option that was put on the table involving expelling 30 Russian officials and keeping the Seattle consulate in operation. He chose the medium one, which was 60. Senior U.S. officials described this meeting to me - they would not outline the heaviest option because they didn't want to preview steps that could be taken depending on Russia's retaliatory measures. So they wanted to keep some things in the holster, if you will. Now, one official did say on background that they are aware of well over 40 Russian intelligence agents continuing to operate in the United States. So those are individuals that could be expelled, depending on if the United States takes additional measures.
SIMON: Well, not to get, you know, too hung up in popular fiction, but isn't it a fact that a lot of people that both we and the Russians call diplomats are, in fact, spies, and we might let them keep 40 spies in this country because we want to keep an equal number in theirs?
HUDSON: Absolutely. It's very common to have spies operating under diplomatic cover in other countries. And so there isn't always optimism on the side of the CIA and other intelligence services to do these sort of expulsions because they know that they're going to lose intelligence resources abroad, as well, when the retaliatory measures happen.
SIMON: What do you make of the fact that the president seems to have delegated the news of these expulsions to subordinates and hasn't faced the American people and said, look - I'm getting rid of these people - I don't like what Russia did?
HUDSON: Yes. Well, this is part of a pattern where the president has not been vocal when he has taken objectively tough moves against Russia. And it has led to some doubts about whether his heart is really in these decisions when he has taken them. But nevertheless, he has taken some pretty aggressive moves against Russia. The 60 Russian expulsion is certainly one data point. Another one would be sending anti-tank missiles to Ukraine - something the Obama administration didn't do for fear of provoking a strong Russian response.
SIMON: John Hudson, national security reporter for The Washington Post, thanks so much.
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