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Master Deal-Maker Trump Giving Russia Back Its Spy Mansions In Exchange For 'Nothing.' Does Nothing Work For You?
Perfect fixer-upper for young spy agency
Greatest Deal Maker on Earth Donald Trump is doing Russia another great big favor without asking anything in return. Imagine that! Back on December 29, 2016, when sane people were still temporarily in the White House, Barack Obama responded to Russia's interference with the 2016 election by throwing out 35 Russian diplomats and closing down two Russian compounds "suspected of" being used for espionage. So it should surprise absolutely nobody that the Trump administration is now preparing to let the Russians have the two luxury properties back, because that doesn't look hinky at all, does it?
In December, Obama ordered the compounds closed and told the Russians to vacate them within 24 hours, as part of a package of sanctions against the Russians for hacking into American political party accounts and spreading disinformation aimed at influencing the election. The Russians weren't especially happy about it, claiming the move was illegal and stuff, because of course they never hacked nothing -- American intelligence agencies just made all that stuff up.
Now -- thanks to an administration that leaks like the ceiling of a classic Georgian mansion that's been unoccupied for six months -- we learn that in April, the Trump administration proposed a trade to Moscow: They could re-occupy the two compounds, one in New York and one in Maryland, if Russia would allow the U.S. to build a new consulate in St. Petersburg. The construction permits for a new consulate were frozen by Russia in 2014 after the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine. Nyet, said the Russians. So the great negotiators of the USA said, oh, we will give Russia back its spy mansions without any pesky "consulate permits" in return.
Two days later, the U.S. position changed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a meeting in Washington that the United States had dropped any linkage between the compounds and the consulate, according to several people with knowledge of the exchanges.
The State Department is saying that “the U.S. and Russia have reached no agreements,” and the next meeting between American and Russian diplomats will take place in June. The Russians won't be moving back into their properties -- which were purchased in the 1970s by the USSR then later transferred to the post-Soviet Russian government -- until the U.S. government decides whether to place restrictions on how the Russians use the places. Officially, they're supposed to be used for Russian diplomats' R & R, but Americans have long suspected the buildings housed intelligence operations, too. Sources told the Washington Post the administration might remove the properties' diplomatic immunity, which would allow U.S. law enforcement to enter them if spy stuff is expected. That's not definite, of course. Russia certainly wouldn't like it, so chances are good team Trump will comply with the usual Trump policy of giving the Russians everything they want.
In yet another fine example of the strategic understatement we've come to love in recent journalism about Trump and Russia, the Post notes,
Any concessions to Moscow could prove controversial while administration and former Trump campaign officials are under congressional and special counsel investigation for alleged ties to Russia.
Or as Vox cofounder Matt Yglesias put it a bit more directly:
The Obama administration had threatened to close down the two Russian compounds earlier, citing both the refusal to allow construction of a new consulate in St. Petersburg (the existing one is unused because it's full of Russian bugs) as well as an increasing campaign of harassment against American diplomats. The harassment included assaults of diplomatic staff and break-ins at American officials' homes in Russia, like that one time an intruder broke into a diplomat's house at night and pooped on the carpet. While the threat of closing the two Russian compounds here wasn't pursued at the time, the discovery of the Russian hacks against the election was the last straw, so Obama threw the Russians out, probably with a certain degree of satisfaction:
“We had no intention of ever giving them back,” a former senior Obama official said of the compounds.
Trump, then at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, appeared to disparage the Obama administration sanctions, telling reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.”
After all, it was only American intelligence agencies saying the Russians had tried to influence the election Trump's way, and we didn't even look at the possibility of expelling the Chinese or that 400-pound guy on his bed in New Jersey. And as you'll recall, the Russian response was surprisingly unlike that of the old Soviet days: Instead of expelling a bunch of American diplomats, Russia did nothing, apart from Tweeting some really dumb memes from their British embassy.
As we now know, that's largely because Michael Flynn had called Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to tell him not to worry about the sanctions because Team Trump would fix everything after taking office. Which is sure as hell what this looks like. Donald Trump, after all, is an honorable guy, and he always keeps his promises. OK, maybe not his promises to people he's signed contracts with, or his promises to the poor schmucks who voted for him. But he's awfully careful to keep Russia happy, isn't he?
Probably just because he wants world peace. You'd have to be some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist to think otherwise.
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[ WaPo ]