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How does the U.S. decide which Russians to throw out of the country?



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The U.S. has expelled 60 Russian diplomats, and the Russians have now responded by expelling 60 U.S. diplomats.

In a statement Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that “based on the principle of reciprocity,” the 60 Americans in Moscow and Yekaterinburg “were declared ‘persona non grata’ for activities incompatible with diplomatic status.” The Americans have to leave the country before April 5, 2018.

“Persona non grata” is the same term the U.S. uses when it expels diplomats. National security types call the expulsions “PNGing,” from the initials.

So how do the U.S. and the Russians decide which diplomats to kick out? And does it have any impact?

Experts consulted by NBC News say the Russian diplomats who were expelled from the U.S. were really spies, for the most part, and PNGing dozens of them is more than symbolic — it has an immediate, if short-term, effect on the ability of Russia to collect intelligence inside the U.S.

Earlier this month, Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by nerve gas in the southwestern English city of Salisbury. British authorities immediately suspected the pair had been poisoned by Russian agents trying to silence Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had been a double agent.

Twenty-six countries expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning. According to current and former U.S. officials, the Russians had violated one of the unwritten rules of espionage — no assassinations, especially not on another country’s soil.

One current official said there is a gentlemen’s agreement — “honor among thieves” — in which there are lines spies should not cross. If a line is crossed, the offended party can expel as PNGs those diplomats it thinks may have some link to the violation.

 People carrying luggage leave the Russian Embassy in London on March 20, 2018 and board a van bearing diplomatic plates. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP – Getty Images file

In addition to murder, the official said offenses that have sparked past expulsions from Western nations include:

  • Internal political meddling, like Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election;
  • Preparations for the outbreak of war;
  • Acts of sabotage;
  • Stealing or trying to steal a nation’s “continuity of government plans,” i.e., how the top levels of government would react after a nuclear strike. FBI mole Robert Hanssen gave the U.S. plans to the Russians, and the U.S. expelled Russian diplomats after he was caught in 2001.

The phrase itself, PNG, comes from the 1961 Vienna Convention, an international treaty that defined rules for diplomatic relations. Article 9 of the treaty says that “without having to explain its decision,” the host nation can notify the “sending State” that “any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata.”

When the Russians summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman to the Foreign Ministry, they were notifying the “sending State” that they planned to expel 60 Americans. When the Foreign Ministry announced publicly that the Americans had been chosen for expulsion for “activities incompatible with diplomatic status,” they were calling them spies without giving details.

Once declared persona non grata,a diplomat must leave the country “within a reasonable period” or risk losing diplomatic immunity.

 Russian consulate in Seattle. Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

The U.S. expulsion of 60 diplomats in March was the second such purge in less than 18 months. The Obama administration had PNGed 35 diplomats in late 2016 in retaliation for Russian cyber meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

According to the current and former U.S. officials, in both cases the FBI and CIA had previously identified the operatives and gave the list to policy makers, who made the final decisions. Many of the Russians who fill diplomatic positions in the U.S. are actually operatives working for the country’s various intelligence services.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the U.S. gave Russia the names of the PNGed individuals after an interagency process that included the “weigh-in” of many “U.S. government partners,” like the FBI.

“We believe our country is safer by making these Russians go home,” said Nauert. “We know that they were not here to do good, but rather, they could have done something potentially bad … I think, if you look at the actions that took place against the British citizen and his daughter, it’s clear that, perhaps, our citizens were not safe.”

This month’s expulsion also included the shuttering of a consulate in Seattle. The Trump administration had shuttered the Russian consulate in San Francisco in 2017, and the Obama administration shut Russian recreation facilities in Maryland and New York in December 2016. Consulates and embassies can serve as hubs for human and electronic data collection, say the officials.

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White House views coalesce behind pre-election vote on Trump Supreme Court pick



WASHINGTON — A consensus has formed within the West Wing to push for a vote on President Donald Trump’s coming Supreme Court nominee before the election, with aides and advisers saying they are increasingly optimistic that they will be able to pull off the speedy confirmation.

Some outside advisers had initially argued that waiting to hold a vote until after Election Day could be the most politically advantageous strategy, said a person familiar with the thinking. Having the seat vacant could motivate conservatives to turn out for Trump to ensure that it got filled and save senators in tight races from having to make a controversial vote so close to the election.

But the momentum in the past 48 hours has swung toward getting a vote done as soon as possible, with those inside and outside the White House arguing that the quicker the process, the more likely they are to fill the seat, senior administration officials said. An official said it now looks like a “strong possibility” that there will be a vote before Election Day as consensus grows among Republican senators to move ahead with the nomination.

Ultimately, the timing will be up to Senate Republicans. At the Republican closed-door lunch Tuesday focused on politics and the Senate race forecast, there was some discussion about timing, according to multiple sources. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has refused to specify a timeline, saying instead Tuesday that he would proceed with a vote when the nominee emerges from the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham has said he would announce timing for a committee hearing and a vote after Trump names a nominee; three sources told NBC News that the committee is planning to hold a hearing in the first half of October.

Trump and White House aides have been in regular contact with McConnell and his staff, officials have said.

There are other practical challenges to a speedy confirmation, beyond politics and strategy: The nominee must undergo an updated FBI background check, the Senate Judiciary Committee needs to hold a hearing and the nominee must be voted out of committee — all necessary steps in a process that could take weeks, and be accompanied by any number of unforeseen delays.

If Trump names his pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday, as he has indicated he will, the Senate would have less than 40 days before the election to confirm a nominee — a speedy schedule by recent standards, although not unprecedented. Trump met Monday with one possible nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and he is scheduled to meet Friday in Miami with another front-runner, federal appeals Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Trump said Monday that one reason he wanted a vote as soon as possible was that he doesn’t want to have a tie in any future court rulings. The court, now at eight members, is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case involving the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 10, and the justices could have a role to play in the election if the results are contested.

“So let’s say I make the announcement on Saturday — there’s a great deal of time before the election,” Trump said Monday. “That’ll be up to Mitch in the Senate. But I’d certainly much rather have the vote. I think it sends a good signal. And it’s solidarity and lots of other things.”

If Republicans lose control of the Senate, they would still be able to vote on a nominee during the lame-duck session before new senators are sworn in at the start of January. But they run the risk that public sentiment could shift further away from Republicans’ filling the seat should the party lose control of the Senate, the White House or both — risking the solidity of the mostly united front Republican senators currently show, an outside adviser said.

But waiting until after the election could aid Republican senators facing tough races in traditionally red states, including Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Martha McSally of Arizona, the adviser said. For those senators, there could be a political advantage in having the seat open on Election Day as a way to motivate conservative voters.

Republicans have a four-seat majority in the Senate, while six Republican incumbents either trail their opponents or hold razor-thin leads.

No president has seated a Supreme Court nominee within three months of a presidential election, according to Senate historical records dating to 1900. President Lyndon Johnson tried to fill a vacant seat in 1968, but when he had to withdraw the nomination because of ethical concerns, he declined to nominate a new justice, saying then that “in ordinary times I would feel it my duty now to send another name to the Senate for this high office. I shall not do so.”

While recent Supreme Court nominees have taken more than 60 days to get confirmed, there is some precedent for a speedier process — Republicans have been pointing to the 33 days it took to get Sandra Day O’Connor confirmed in 1981.

Trump retweeted comments Tuesday by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh calling for the Senate to skip hearings and move straight to a vote, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House was working with Graham on following the traditional committee hearing process.

Geoff Bennett and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.

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Biden compares Justice Department to Trump’s ‘private law firm’



Joe Biden criticized President Trump and Attorney General William Barr for their handling of the Department of Justice during an event with Black small business owners in North Carolina. Biden compared the DOJ to Trump’s “private law firm.”

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Political leaders sound off about charges against one of three officers involved in Breonna Taylor case



Notable reactions from across the political spectrum poured in after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said charges will be filed against one of three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician whom police shot during a raid this year.

Former detective Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment. Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Detective Myles Cosgrove were not indicted. Cosgrove fired the shot that killed Taylor, Cameron said, but the grand jury considered his shooting justifiable.

Several Democratic leaders quickly expressed disappointment that only one of the officers was charged.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said, “I haven’t read it fully yet, but there’s no question that Breonna Taylor and her family deserve justice yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a former Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted: “Breonna Taylor’s life mattered. This result is a disgrace and an abdication of justice. Our criminal justice system is racist. The time for fundamental change is now.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has stayed relatively quiet about Taylor’s death, expressed sorrow but said he trusted in the decision.

“Breonna Taylor’s life was tragically cut short. Our city and the country continue to grieve her loss. Elaine and I pray for healing for Breonna’s mother and her family throughout this process. I have called for a fair and thorough investigation into Breonna’s killing,” he said. (McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the secretary of transportation.)

“Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron led a complete inquiry to find the truth and pursue justice. I have total confidence he followed the facts and the legal process and his decision,” McConnell said.

Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, a Republican, echoed the sentiment. “I think that the rule of law is an important thing, and I hope that people will accept that,” he said.

When asked about the decision Wednesday, President Donald Trump answered, “I don’t know enough about it.”

He had called Taylor’s death, as well as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a “tragic event” during a town hall gathering with ABC News this month.

“Well, I think they were tragic events, and I do feel that we have to also take into consideration that if you look at our police, they do a phenomenal job,” he said at the time.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., tweeted: “It shouldn’t have taken this long to bring charges against the officer responsible for the murder of #BreonnaTaylor, but this indictment is still a long way from justice. All officers involved must be held fully accountable for her death.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a tweet, “Black lives will not matter until we hold police accountable for Black deaths, invest more in our communities than in criminalization, and dismantle the structures of racial oppression in our country and ensure all people are truly equal in the eyes of the law.”

He added: “Police murdered Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her own home. Today, our justice system decided that these officers will not be held accountable. This is a grave and shameful injustice.”

Shortly after the indictment, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called on Cameron to release all “information, evidence, and facts” without affecting the three felony counts. “I believe that the public deserves this information,” he said. “I trust Kentuckians. They deserve to see the facts.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told reporters: “It’s just weighing really heavy on my heart, and because we know that her death is not just the result of one person but the system, structure and department that failed their entire community. And you know, we know this fight to prevent deaths like hers is going to be so much broader in terms of the systemic change, the political change.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has made many calls for justice in Taylor’s death, also vowed to keep fighting.

“Once again, the law says that property is more valuable than Black life. We cannot let up in our fight for justice for Breonna Taylor and every Black and brown person murdered at the hands of police. We will fight to end qualified immunity,” Omar tweeted.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., posted: “Did I hear that correctly? Only one officer is being held remotely accountable, and it’s not for killing Breonna Taylor but instead for shooting apartments? It’s never been clearer this country considers property more valuable than human life.”

Taylor’s death sparked widespread outrage and protests, with thousands of people demanding justice and accountability from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Taylor, 26, was killed shortly after midnight on March 13 when officers raided her apartment under a “no knock” warrant as part of a drug investigation involving Taylor’s ex-boyfriend Jamarcus Glover, a convicted drug dealer.

Glover listed Taylor’s apartment as his address and used it to receive packages, authorities said. Taylor had no criminal record, and no drugs or money were recovered during the raid, according to the search warrant inventory document obtained by NBC News.

Officers said they were fired upon as they entered the home. Taylor’s family has said that Walker believed the home was being broken into and that he fired his legally owned gun to defend himself.

The city reached a $12 million settlement last week in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family. The settlement does not require the city to admit any wrongdoing

“It is just an acknowledgment of the need for reform and the need for a settlement to take place,” Mayor Greg Fischer said in announcing the terms of the settlement.

Fischer signed an executive order Tuesday that placed the city under a state of emergency as Louisville braced for the grand jury’s decision.

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