Smoke pours from Russian consulate just hours before it’s ordered to close

Smoke pours from Russian consulate just hours before it’s ordered to close
Black smoke rises from the roof at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco.
Source: Eric Risberg/AP
Black smoke rises from the roof at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco.
Source: Eric Risberg/AP

On Friday, as temperatures soared well into the triple digits, thick black smoke could be seen pouring out of the chimney at the San Francisco Russian consulate. According to CBS, the fire was no accident, and occurred just one day after the Trump administration ordered the consulate’s closure.

“It was not unintentional. They were burning something in their fireplace,” Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Fire Department, told CBS.

San Francisco’s Russian consulate isn’t the only diplomatic site being shut down by the Trump administration this weekend. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the United States is also forcing the Russian chancery annex in Washington, D.C., to shutter its doors, along with its consular annex in New York, in “the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians,” according to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

Following these closures, Nauert told the Chronicle, Russia will have three remaining consulates in the U.S. — one in Seattle, one in Houston and another Washington, D.C.

“While there will continue to be a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes, we have chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship,” Nauert said.

The building closures mark yet another notch up in the ever increasing diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

“There is finally the realization by the administration that Russians have been involved in intelligence operations at this consulate, which they have been doing for decades,” Rick Smith, an ex-FBI special agent who previously headed the bureau’s Russian counterintelligence squad, told the Associated Press. “It’s almost 50 years of history and part of a tit-for-tat, but this is more like a hammer.”

To add insult to injury for the Russians, on the same day the consulate appeared to burn items inside, the New York Times published a damning, and perhaps must-read report, outlining just how deep that country’s meddling could have gone in the 2016 election.

Beyond outlining what the public already knows — that the Russians spread damaging information about Clinton and hacked emails from within the Democratic party — the story in the Times also gave credence to the conspiracy theory that Russian hackers infiltrated voter registration systems, state and local election databases, e-poll books and other equipment “well ahead of the 2016 voting,” according to the Times.

“We don’t know if any of the problems were an accident, or the random problems you get with computer systems, or whether it was a local hacker, or actual malfeasance by a sovereign nation-state,” Michael Daniel, who served as the cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama White House, told the Times. “If you really want to know what happened, you’d have to do a lot of forensics, a lot of research and investigation, and you may not find out even then.”

But even beyond conspiracies about hacking and the Homeland-esque scenario of destroying key evidence by burning it inside a consulate with hours to spare, the closure of the San Francisco consulate will also simply be a pain in the ass to both Russians living in the area and Americans attempting to do business with Russia.

As CBS noted, the Bay Area is home to more than 75,000 Russian-speaking residents. Now, they will have to travel to Seattle or Houston to renew their passports or meet with any Russian official.

“It’s very inconvenient,” Russian entrepreneur Daniel Kravtsov told the Chronicle. “Now we need to go to another city. I’m upset that everything is going in this direction.”