MODERATOR: Good morning. Thank you all for joining us for this off-camera, on-background briefing on the expulsions of the Russian intelligence officers that we announced on Monday. For your situation awareness, but not for reporting purposes – because it’s on-background, and attribution is senior administration official – with us today we have [Senior Administration Official One]. We have [Senior Administration Official Two], and [Senior Administration Official Three]. Both [Senior Administration Official One] and [Senior Administration Official Two] will give opening statements. [Senior Administration Official Three] is on hand to answer any European cooperation questions specific, but we’ll go ahead and I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official Two] for opening remarks, then [Senior Administration Official One], then we’ll open with questions. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: All right, thanks everybody for joining us today. So I think you guys have seen a lot of the press that we put out on this already, but just to re-cap. The action that we took on Monday was – we took it for a series of reasons, and first and foremost is, to express solidarity with the UK in response to the attack that they experienced in Salisbury. The UK is our closest ally, and again, standing with our allies is a key message that we wanted to convey. And secondly, we took the action on Monday in joint coordinated fashion with a series of partners around the world, and the purpose of that was to make clear that we stand united with the UK; but at the same time, to send a message to the Russians that there is an alliance out there that is dealing with the threat that Russia poses to all of us. And so a joint action by a series of countries, by the coordinated action, sends a stronger message of our unity against the Russians’ abhorrent behavior. And the third purpose was – ultimately, what we did was in our national security interest.
What we did was expel a series of Russian undeclared intelligence officers who operate under diplomatic cover here in their embassy. And these are individuals that facilitate Russian malign activity against our country, and also they facilitate activity in other countries as well. And so the purpose of our action really ultimately was also about our own national security interest. And fourth, this latest action by Russia reflects its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world. It really was abhorrent to see this chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, and so this action that we took on Monday ultimately wanted – was intended to send a clear message to Russia that this behavior is unacceptable, and there will be costs when Russia crosses a line. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. So if I can just add to that – so in terms of the actions that were taken – and this is really – I think you could say they’re unprecedented in their scope. Obviously, this is not the first time that there have been expulsions of intelligence officers from the United States, but this was the single largest, and it’s significant. In terms of the specific actions – so there were 48 individuals from Russia’s embassy and its consulate in New York City who were declared persona non grata by the Department of State. And then in reviewing this, we also found additional activity at the United Nations, and so there were further 12 who were expelled for abusing the right of residency or privilege of residency at the United Nations.
In addition, we withdrew our consent for the operation of the Russian consulate general in Seattle. And consulates operate with the consent of the host government, and we made a determination that, in light of this incident in Salisbury, and the ongoing activities that [Senior Administration Official Two] has just mentioned, that we would no longer consent to the presence of the Russian consulate general in Seattle. So the staff who were declared persona non grata have been given seven days to depart the United States. The Government of the Russian Federation’s also been given seven days to shut down operations at its consulate general in Seattle, and then 30 days to close down the residence that is associated with the consulate general in Seattle.
And I think the outpouring of support that was shown here over the weekend – and that was an effort that was led across our interagency, but obviously the State Department played a very significant role in reaching out and coordinating with other countries. But the fact that 28 other countries plus NATO have joined in this unified action we think sends a really unambiguous message as to just how seriously we take this incident, and just how completely beyond any parameters of acceptability it was. This was not something that we could simply turn a blind eye to and not react, and so we think that that message has been sent in a very clear and unambiguous way, that the world simply will not put up with actions like this.
MODERATOR: Okay, when I call on you, please introduce yourself, your news affiliation – you, sir?
STAFF: And wait for the microphone, please.
MODERATOR: And wait for the microphone. That’s very important, too.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. Dmitry Kirsanov of TASS. I have a couple of quick housekeeping points, and then a question, if I may. The – 48, 36 plus two, all of those PNGed and 12. But those also PNGed or no? And the other point is, can the Russians send in new diplomats instead of those who are being removed from here, or is it something that could be discussed at a later stage? And a question for [Senior Administration Official Two] and [Senior Administration Official One]: Where does this – what’s happening now and an inevitable response of the Russians – leave you in terms of preparation for a potential U.S.-Russian summit, which President Trump said might take place in the not too distant future? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. So I can address the question of the numbers. So it was – 48 were declared persona non grata bilaterally, so these are individuals who were credited diplomatically with the Department of State. The UN is a separate – of course a separate entity and it has a slightly separate procedure – distinct procedure for these types of things. But we – in the UN, we shared necessary information with the UN and that resulted in the withdrawal of those 12 at the UN.
And in terms of the assignment of others, obviously we take very seriously the threat that is posed by foreign intelligence officers in the United States – in this case, Russian intelligence officers operating in the United States. This clearly has been a topic that has been widely reported on over the last months, indeed – and indeed years. But in terms of our acceptance of diplomats – Russian diplomats – of course our door is still open to the assignment of Russian diplomats to the United States. But clearly, we have very, very grave and serious concerns about the assignment of individuals who are not really diplomats.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And just on – Dmitry, on your third question, also, just to follow up quickly on [Senior Administration Official One]’s point on the assignment of people, we have no cap on Russian diplomats to the United States. The Russian Government has a cap on the number of people that we employ in our mission across Russia. We do not have a cap, and so like [Senior Administration Official One] said, it really is about having diplomats assigned here as opposed to intelligence officers. And on your third point about the summit, this does not affect preparations.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Over here.
QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Ekaterina Sobol. I am with Russian news agency RIA Novosti and I have a question about details and evidence. So four of these people from this list were my best friends, so – one of them was the director of culture center, the second one – I will not call him, but I will tell you that he has difficulties to send even link through the internet and his English was very tough. So other were just usual clerks, they were taking application for Russian visa.
And for me, first off, it’s very sad because I’m losing my friends. Second off, can you guarantee that innocent Russian people who don’t have any ties with Russian Government will not taking and – they will – so they will – they will be safe and secure in the United States? Because I didn’t see any evidence that they were agents and my family, my husband, U.S.-born, we don’t feel safe and secure.
So where are all these people – U.S., some Russian officers? And can you guarantee Russian people – because it’s a lot talks about Russian beast and no respect to Russia – can you guarantee that we and our U.S.-Russian families will be safe and secure this time? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s very important here to differentiate between issues that result from the relations of problems and the relations between states and people. We have absolutely no problems with the Russian people or with Russia, per se. This is about disagreements and very profound disagreements that we have right now with the Government of Russia. And so this action was taken in response to actions that were taken by the Government of Russia on the soil of a European country, an ally of the United States. But in terms of that reflecting some sort of general bias against Russian people as a whole, that – I would say that’s absolutely false, and all of us who have lived in Russia, who have worked in Russia, we have Russian friends, we speak the language, we have great admiration for Russia, for Russians, and for its culture. So we need to keep the focus of this on the government and it’s at the government level that we have real concerns.
QUESTION: So they were all intelligence officers, all of – 48 of them, you’re pretty sure?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The people that we expelled from the United States, we expelled them because they were engaging in activities that we deemed to be harmful to our national interests, and that’s the right of any government to take those steps.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And also just to add to [Senior Administration Official One]’s point, I think on Monday and also on Tuesday, I think, we did – also from the White House press secretary did provide condolences to the Russian people in response to the fire in Kemerovo. We did the same thing on Tuesday as well when the State Department press secretary went to the podium. So like [Senior Administration Official One] said, there really is a clear distinction on our part of what we’re trying to do, how we see the Russian people, and how we see the Russian Government. There’s no animosity between the United States and the Russian people. This is something about – the action we took was in response to actions of the Russian Government.
MODERATOR: Okay. Tatiana, then we’ll go Tara next.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much. Tatiana Kalmykova with RIA Novosti news agency. Quick question: I know that you shared some information and British shared some information with you. Do you have an understanding what was the motives of the poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter? Do you have an understanding who did it? Not which country, but specific people? And are you interested in the final results of investigations? My understanding, that will take, like, a couple of months. That’s based what’s – came from London. Thank you very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Well, I think, first of all, as to motives, I think that was something that was asked of the Government of Russia by the Government of the United Kingdom after this happened, and they received no response to that, and in fact, the responses have been, I would say, quite confusing, quite disjointed, and many of them quite nonsensical in terms of various countries and actors that have been suggested as somehow possibly being connected to this. None of it stands up to analysis or to reason. Obviously, we can’t talk about the details of the British investigation and where it’s going, but it’s enough – it’s sufficient to say that, based on the investigation that the United Kingdom has carried out, both they and we were convinced that the Russian Government was responsible for this action.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next, Tara.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Tara McKelvey. I work for the BBC. I want to know if you can tell us a little bit about how the relationship is between the U.S. and the UK and about President Trump’s visit to the UK and how you see this has been changed this time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Want to take that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Sure.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So I think – [Senior Administration Official Three], do you want to —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. I think we’re in a very, very good place. I think what we were able to demonstrate through this recent action is that the Special Relationship is as strong as it ever has been. UK is and always will remain our strongest ally, rooted in NATO, and before and after its exit from the European Union. So we’re in ongoing considerations and discussions with the UK Government as to when the visit will take place.
QUESTION: And do you have any more details about the visit by any chance?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Not at this time, no.
MODERATOR: Okay. Sir, in the green sweater.
QUESTION: Yeah. Carlos Franganillo, television of Spain. Can you give us any detail about the activity of these people that you’re expelling? You say they are intelligence officers. You have mentioned some kind of threat on a naval base in the area of Seattle. There was any surveillance by Russian agents or something like that. Do you – can you give us any detail about the activity of these 48 or 60 people that you’re expelling?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think we’re not in a position to comment on the specifics of their activities or, obviously, their identities or anything else. But I think it’s sufficient to say that we knew who these people were, and we determined that their activities in the United States were not in keeping with their diplomatic status that had been conferred to them by our government and that their presence was detrimental to our national security interests. And our first responsibility is to protect our national security and protect the security of our people.
MODERATOR: Okay. In the jacket, next to Tara.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Philip Crowther with France24. Would you collectively agree with the White House, which said in its first announcement of these expulsions of 60 diplomats that they were spies? That was specifically the wording used by senior White House officials in their briefing before this was announced. Would you agree with that definition, that all 60 were spies?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.
MODERATOR: And then the gentleman right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Bricio Segovia with France24 as well, the Spanish service here. You just said that all 60 individuals were spies. This is the first time actually here that I heard – and I think it’s [Senior Administration Official Two] who say that – that the 48 individuals that were here in D.C. were working undercover. So that means that all 60 were carrying out operations undercover for their governments.
And my second question is: According to the investigation of the UK, they keep saying it’s highly likely that Russia is behind all this. When you say “highly likely,” is that there is a possibility that Russia might not be behind this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So on the first point, I think the key issue is, again, these are not diplomats that we expelled. These were intelligence officers that were engaging in activities that were not commensurate with their diplomatic roles and functions at an embassy. And so that’s what we mean when we say they’re spies and they’re engaging in – and they’re operating under diplomatic cover. They were assigned to the embassy as diplomats and they were not conducting themselves in accordance with their specific roles at the embassy.
QUESTION: So they got a different identity in regards to —
MODERATOR: Wait for the microphone.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry. So basically they were holding like a different identity in terms of their job? Is that what you’re saying?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So we – our focus was on their activities, not their identities. So again, if you’re assigned to United States as a diplomat, you are expected to perform the duties of a diplomat, and they engaged in activities outside those functions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Again, these were intelligence officers that engaged in activities outside the scope of their diplomatic functions.
QUESTION: And can we say was undercover, these kind of persons? I’m just trying to get some —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, no. And again, when we say “undercover,” it means that they were working under diplomatic cover. So again, I mean, the terminology is a little bit messy, I guess, in media. But again, these were Russian – undeclared Russian intelligence officers. They were assigned to the embassy as diplomats, but they were not performing the duties – they were engaging in activities outside the scope of diplomats.
QUESTION: So – and just to be clear – I’m sorry I’m insisting so much – I just heard here from one of our journalists here that one of these people was working as – or two of them were working as clerks at the embassy. So that means they will – carrying out that function and on the side they were carrying out some other functions that didn’t apply to the status they hold here or they were supposed to be carrying out as diplomats?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Again, I think everybody that we expelled, they were – they received diplomatic visas and they were assigned to official functions within the Russian mission to the United States. And again, they were engaged in activities outside the scope of their activity – of their role as diplomats.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And an important thing to point out here – and this is true not only in the United States, but in all countries – all diplomats, from ambassadors down to the lowest-level employee in any embassy, they work there and they reside in that country at the pleasure of the host country. If the host country no longer desires their presence, it is their – within their rights to curtail it, and that’s what we’ve exercised here.
QUESTION: And the second question, the “highly likely?”
MODERATOR: We need – do we need to move on here, or —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: We do, because we’re running short on time. I’m sorry. If we have time, we’ll circle back to you, but one question per person. So I’m sorry, your name is?
QUESTION: Hi, I’m Maren with the German Press Agency. Are you satisfied with the response from the European countries, considering that you’re the country that expelled by far the most people? And is it true that you asked the Europeans to do more?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The short answer is yes, we’re very satisfied with the scope of response that we’ve seen around the world. And I think actually, to date, the total number is up to 30, including the United States and NATO. Georgia expelled one diplomat today, and so the count of countries is up to 30 total.
I think our response, obviously, was large in part because of the numbers of Russians in – Russian officials inside our country. I think if you look across the countries that expelled Russian intelligence officers, I think it varies from country to country in terms of their size and in terms of the number of diplomats that they have in Moscow, but also the size of the Russian mission in their countries. A small country has a small representation in Moscow, and they don’t necessarily have as many Russian officials operating in their capitals, and so their willingness to expel one person from the Russian mission in their country actually is actually – is a significant show of support because they’re also risking their mission in Moscow.
And so the actual numbers that individual countries expel is not necessarily – they’re not relatively the same across all countries. So in that sense, the number of countries is huge, and the fact that some countries expel one doesn’t just mean that the number one actually carries significance for a lot of countries. And so in that sense, we are extremely satisfied with the scope, but I would say there’s certainly scope to do more.
And so a lot of what we’re going to be doing is continuing to put pressure on Russian intelligence officers around the world and working with our partners to do this, because, again, a lot of what we – on our end, a lot of what we did is – the action that we took was in our national security interest. Again, undeclared Russian intelligence officers inside our country that facilitate activities that, for example, happened in Salisbury. These things don’t happen on their own. And so having these undeclared Russian intelligence officers inside our country is a threat to our national security interest and is one of the points that we’re going to make to our partners around the world, is that these officials inside your countries pose a threat to you as well. And that’s – that’s the reason why we need to do this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Can – may I add to that just quickly, Maren. This was an unprecedented show of transatlantic unity, really a amazing response to a breach of the postwar order. And so we do not make light in any way of countries’ commitments and the numbers that were pushed out, as [Senior Administration Official Two] said. And I think that this may very well represent a turning point in how we view Russian activities in our Western democracies; and to the extent that we can work with our partners to develop a very clear-eyed view of what these individuals attempt to do within our sovereign countries will be of benefit to us all.
QUESTION: Thank you. Dmitry Zlodorev with Rossiya Segodnya news agency. Sixty spies – that’s pretty big matter. Did you follow it for some time, or did you find this matter several days – just several days ago?
SENIOR ADMINISRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, obviously we can’t discuss the specifics of these things, but you can probably – you can probably draw your own conclusions as to how one knows these things.
MODERATOR: Okay, I have time for one more question. Or okay, we’ll split the difference with two. Okay.
QUESTION: Hi, Nick Allen from the Daily Telegraph, UK. I’m not sure you can comment on this, but perhaps we’ll get a comment on whether there are any investigations going on looking back at deaths of Russians on U.S. soil, looking back at previous cases.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think that – I think that question has been, to my knowledge, raised more in the context of the UK than it has here in the United States. But to – really to the broader point, though, and this has been mentioned already, I mean, this about not only Salisbury but a broader range of activities that the Russian state has been carrying out here in the United States and elsewhere, we believe with very – with the intent of undermining our democracies, of undermining unity between our countries.
And so this was just a very clear message that we find that unacceptable, and the fact that so many countries have joined, it’s clear that Russia is – the Russian Government is isolated on this, and they need to – they should draw the appropriate conclusions as to how – as to how broad this response was, and reflect a bit on some of the policies and actions that they’ve been conducting in recent years, because it’s really – it’s really driven us apart. And here in the United States, from the President on down, we’ve all expressed a hope for better relations between our countries, but better relations have to be built on the basis of change and the basis of addressing the problems and the issues that led to this situation in the first place.
MODERATOR: Okay, last question.
QUESTION: Gilles Paris, Le Monde newspaper. Why did you choose to expel the diplomats, or so-called diplomats in your view, and not to take economic sanctions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think in this case, as my colleague has said, I mean, this is – these are activities and what happened in the UK very likely carried out by such individuals, and we wanted to send a clear signal that this is simply unacceptable, and that to – in order to defend our national security that we’d take steps to reduce the number of people that we assess to be undeclared intelligence officers, that these are – that such acts as the use of the nerve agents in Salisbury, it takes individuals to conduct such actions, and so we believe it’s necessary to curtail – to curtail that ability. So in response to the events in Salisbury, this was, I think, a very logical step to simply not only send a message, but to take practical steps that reduce the ability of the Russian Government, the Russian security services, to carry out acts like that.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you all very much. If you have any follow-up questions, the Foreign Press Center has my contact information. I’m happy to take your questions. Thank you.