US President-elect Donald Trump on Friday expressed his appreciation to Vladimir Putin after the Russian president said he would not expel American diplomats in response to new US sanctions over alleged election hacking as a gesture to the incoming administration.
"Great move on delay (by V Putin)," Trump tweeted Friday afternoon. "I always knew he was very smart!"
The tweet is Trump's latest nod to Putin, whom he has praised as a strong leader - inspiring considerable backlash from US politicians from both parties who call the Russian president an authoritarian leader who poses a danger to US interests.
President Barack Obama's administration on Thursday announced it will expel 35 Russian "intelligence operatives" and shutter facilities in Maryland and New York believed to be used for the Kremlin's intelligence-gathering purposes, as a way to punish Moscow. US intelligence agencies have alleged that Russian state-backed hackers leaked information about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to sway the election in Trump's favour. Russia denies the charge.
Putin's decision not to reciprocate is a sharp departure from the tit-for-tat policies Moscow pursued against the United States in response to Ukraine-related sanctions in 2014.
Putin announced Friday that he "won't create problems for American diplomats" in retaliation while he waits for the new administration to take office, adding that he would "plan further steps for restoring the Russian-American relationship based in the policies enacted by the administration of President Donald Trump."
In the meantime, he extended an invitation to the children of American diplomats in Russia to a holiday party in the Kremlin.
Trump remained relatively quiet about the substance of the sanctions announced Thursday, even as Republican lawmakers said they were a necessary, overdue action that should be expanded in the future. The president-elect said only that it was "time for our country to move on to bigger and better things" and promised that he would meet with intelligence leaders next week to get more details.
Those comments were not enough for some members of Congress. Traveling in Eastern Europe, Sen John McCain, R-Ariz, said, "I agree with the president-elect that we need to get on [with] our lives - without having elections being affected by any outside influence, especially Vladimir Putin, who is a thug and a murderer," according to Reuters.
McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, which on Friday scheduled a 5 January hearing to investigate foreign cyber threats. Outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcell Lettre and Adm Michael Rogers, the head of US Cyber Command, are expected to testify.
The hearing will likely be the first of several promised for the coming weeks and months to look into allegations of Russian hacking and other nefarious activities, a subject upon which Republican members of Congress and the president-elect do not regularly see eye to eye.
In the past, Trump has dismissed the intelligence community's findings that Russia was behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, among other election-related breaches. Trump argued that the culprit could just as easily be China or "some guy in his home in New Jersey."
On Friday, Trump's incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, rushed to clarify that Trump's comments were not an indication that the new administration would not take hacking allegations seriously.
"We agree that foreign governments shouldn't be hacking American institutions, period," Priebus told Fox News. "So it's not like we condone the hacking of institutions and entities and businesses in America - of course not."
Late Friday, Trump again took to his Twitter account to critique how the media has been covering the issue, tweeting: Russians are playing @CNN and @NBCNews for such fools - funny to watch, they don't have a clue! @FoxNews totally gets it!