By James Oliphant
BEDMINSTER, NJ (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday he was being sarcastic when he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for saving the United States money by ordering cuts in U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia.
Asked whether he was being sarcastic, Trump told reporters:
"In order to reduce our payroll, absolutely. I think you know that," Trump said without explicitly criticizing the move.
Breaking nearly two weeks of silence on Putin's July 30 order cutting U.S. embassy and consulate staff by nearly two thirds, Trump said on Thursday:
"I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll," adding "there's no real reason for them to go back."
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Trump's remarks rekindled criticism of his kid-glove handling of Putin, especially as he has not shied away from being highly critical of members of his own party, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Putin, reacting to new sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress and reluctantly signed into law by Trump, ordered Washington to cut its diplomatic and technical staff by 755 people by Sept. 1. Many of those affected likely will be local Russian staffers.
It was also a reaction to former President Barack Obama expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the United States last December over the intelligence agency reports.
"I was just speaking to the Secretary (of State Rex Tillerson) and we're talking about coming up with an answer ... by September 1st we'll have a response," Trump said.
Congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign by hacking and other methods to help Trump, a Republican. 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.
During his campaign and since becoming president, Trump has consistently called for better ties with Russia, declined to criticize Putin and refused to unequivocally embrace the conclusions of the intelligence agencies.
Trump's remarks were immediately denounced by current and former U.S. officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The remarks also raised some eyebrows in Europe.
“I would have to say in my experience (it is) one of the most bizarre things I have ever heard from any government official, not just the U.S.," Ojars Kalnins, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Latvian parliament, told Reuters earlier on Friday.
"Thanking another foreign leader for firing people from their embassy is unprecedented. It’s bizarre."
(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann in Washington and Gederts Gelzis in Latvia; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Grant McCool and James Dalgleish)