President Donald Trump on Thursday brushed off Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to expel hundreds of US diplomatic employees from Russia, instead thanking Putin and insisting it would save the US significant cash.
In remarks to reporters at his golf course in central New Jersey, Trump dismissed Putin's move, saying he "greatly' appreciated Putin's help cutting down the payroll at the US State Department.
"I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down on payroll," Trump said, adding: "As far as I am concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There's no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they've been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We'll save a lot of money."
It was unclear whether the president was joking at all in his remarks, which were made following a security briefing held during an extended working vacation at Trump's Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the president's remarks.
Putin said last month the US would have to cut 755 of its embassy and consular staff in Russia - a long-expected response to President Barack Obama's order to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the US. Obama took action following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's comments were a shock to State Department officials, according to officials who described the reaction on condition of anonymity to avoid potential repercussions for reporting criticism of the president. Some in the department were dismayed to hear the president suggest, even sarcastically, that American diplomats were a waste of money and unneeded in large numbers in a major world power like Russia, the officials said.
There was no immediate official reaction from the State Department. But Trump's comments were not expected to alter plans for the US to deliver a formal response to Moscow by September 1.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting Sunday in the Philippines that a response would be coming by that date, the deadline that Russia previously set for the US diplomats to leave.
It's still unclear how the reduction in personnel will work, and Tillerson said he asked "clarifying questions" of Lavrov in their meeting. A key question is whether the reduction affects only Americans posted to Russia or also locally hired staff at the embassy and consulates.
A reduction in American staff would likely hit consular officers, who process visas for Russians who want to visit the US.
Trump has said he believes US intelligence agencies' conclusions that Russia meddled in the election, but he has dismissed the ongoing investigations into possible collusion between Moscow and his campaign aides as a "witch hunt."