President Donald Trump shrugged off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to expel hundreds of U.S. diplomatic employees from Russia and instead thanked the former KGB agent for helping him cut U.S. payroll costs.
Trump’s remarks to reporters as he vacationed at his New Jersey golf resort were his first public response to Putin’s retaliation last month for sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama, which were among the biggest ever between the two former Cold War rivals.
The comments came as investigations into allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign are heating up –another matter Trump appeared to brush off, saying he was “surprised” at a recent FBI search of his former campaign chairman’s home in connection with the probe.
Reporters who questioned the president said it wasn’t clear whether Trump was joking when he said Putin’s retaliatory expulsion of 755 diplomatic employees would actually help him achieve his plan to slash the State Department’s budget by about a third.
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll,” Trump said. “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… We’ll save a lot of money.”
Putin’s order to cut U.S. embassy and consular staff in Russia last month was a delayed response to the U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last year in a series of measures penalizing Russia for allegedly meddling in the presidential election.
Former President Barack Obama ordered the expulsions and seizure of two Russian country retreats in the United States in December after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia sought to boost Trump’s prospects of winning the election through the hacking and leak of documents damaging to his opponent Hillary Clinton.
Some speculated that former Army General Mike Flynn, a Trump aide who got fired as White House national security advisor, promised that Trump would roll back those sanctions.
Congress voted to enshrine those Obama-era sanctions into law, making it harder for Trump to reverse them, after Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to Trump, said the administration was weighing the return of the two Russian diplomatic compounds.
The Justice Department’s investigation of Russian meddling was taken over this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who recently assembled a grand jury to assist his effort. Separate investigations of the Russian matter by committees of Congress this year lent fuel to an historic move by Congress last month to overwhelmingly enact legislation tightening sanctions against Russia.
Trump signed the legislation reluctantly and has repeatedly called the investigations a “witch hunt” that will uncover no collusion between his campaign and Russia or other wrongdoing.
Trump said on August 10 that he was taken aback by the FBI’s raid on his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home last month.
“They do that very seldom. I was surprised to see it,” he said, adding that Manafort only ran his campaign for “a very short period of time.”
“I thought it was a very strong signal,” Trump said.
Manafort, who denies any wrongdoing, has ties to the political party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who lives in exile in Russia after being driven out of his country in 2014.
Current and former diplomats were stunned by Trump’s remarks welcoming Moscow’s massive expulsion of U.S. diplomatic staff.
“If he was joking, he should know better,” Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranking official under Republican President George W. Bush, told Reuters.
“If he wasn’t, it’s unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats.”
An anonymous current diplomat told Reuters that the department’s staff was “horrified and rattled” by Trump’s remarks.
There was no immediate official reaction from the State Department.
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