SAN FRANCISCO — Acrid, black smoke was seen pouring from a chimney at the Russian consulate in San Francisco and workers began hauling boxes out of the stately building in a historic area of the city Friday, a day after the Trump administration ordered its closure amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia.
The workers were hurrying to shut Russia's oldest consulate in the United States ahead of today's deadline.
The order to leave the consulate and an official diplomatic residence in San Francisco — home to a longstanding community of Russian emigres and technology workers — escalated an already tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Moscow, even for those who have long monitored activities inside the closely monitored building.
"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," said Rick Smith, a veteran FBI special agent who previously headed the bureau's Russian counterintelligence squad in San Francisco. "It's almost 50 years of history and part of a tit-for-tat, but this is more like a hammer."
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Russian consulate said the closure would hurt both Russian and American citizens needing its services. The consulate issued more than 16,000 tourist visas to American citizens last year, it said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claims U.S. "special services" intend to search the consulate today. She said that the United States also plans to search apartments in San Francisco used by Russian diplomats and their families. Zakharova said that involves the families leaving their apartments for 10 to 12 hours so officials can search.
The State Department isn't commenting specifically on whether officials plan to search the premises. But the State Department said as of today, access to the consulate will only be granted with State Department permission.
It had no comment on the black smoke coming from the consulate in San Francisco, which triggered a visit from the San Francisco Fire Department.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene were turned away by consulate officials. An Associated Press reporter heard people who came from inside the building tell firefighters that there was no problem and that consulate staff were burning items in a fireplace.
Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman from the San Francisco Fire Department, said the department received a call about the smoke and sent a crew to investigate but determined the smoke was coming from the chimney.