US President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the United States to slash its diplomatic staff in Russia – sparking a debate on whether or not he was joking, but in any case giving rise to confusion and anger in some quarters.
''I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I'm concerned I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,'' Trump told reporters at his golf club in New Jersey, breaking nearly two weeks of silence on Putin's 30 July order cutting US embassy and consulate staff by nearly two-thirds.
Trump added "there's no real reason for them (the staff) to go back" and "we're going to save a lot of money", in response to Putin's Cold War-style move.
His statements seem to clash with a State Department official who called Moscow's order "a regrettable and uncalled-for act". On Thursday, the State Department had no immediate reaction to Trump's latest comments.
The comments refer to Putin's action in July to seize two American properties and order the US Embassy in Russia to cut its personnel numbers by 755 – with many of those affected likely to be local Russians.
It was his response to sanctions imposed on his country for Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election, which were approved by Congress and signed by Trump.
It's unclear exactly what might happen to the embassy workers removed from Russia, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said Trump's administration would decide how to respond to Putin's move by 1 September.
Whether intended to be flippant or not, Trump's remarks on Thursday were immediately denounced by current and former US officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Politico and Reuters asked several State Department officials about Trump's comments, and they were incredulous.
"This is so incredibly demoralising and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm's way," one diplomat said. "Everyone seems pretty amazed. This statement is naive and short-sighted. It sends a terrible signal to local employees everywhere."
''THANK Putin?'' another official answered. ''I don't have words that are printable to describe my reaction.''
Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official under Republican President George W. Bush, called Trump's comments "grotesque."
"If he was joking, he should know better," said Burns, now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats."
Heather Conley, formerly a top State Department official dealing with European affairs, said the expulsions of hundreds of people from an important US embassy is extraordinary and "it is very difficult to see how the president could view these expulsions as a 'positive' development in any form."
Congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the conclusions of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign by hacking and other methods to help Trump's campaign.
They are also looking into possible collusion between the campaign and Russian officials. Moscow has repeatedly denied meddling in the election and Trump denies any campaign collusion.
Putin's order was also a tit-for-tat reaction to former President Barack Obama expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the United States last December over the intelligence agency reports.
During his campaign and since becoming president, Trump has consistently called for better ties with Russia, declined to criticise Putin and refused to unequivocally embrace the conclusions of the intelligence agencies.