President Trump thanked Vladimir Putin on Thursday for ordering the expulsion of 755 U.S. diplomats from Moscow, saying it would “cut down our payroll.”
Putin ordered the staff cut by Sept. 1, in response to new sanctions against Russia that were passed by Congress last month and signed reluctantly by Trump.
Trump’s comments were his first he’d made about Putin’s mandate. “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,” said Trump at his Bedminster, N.J. golf club.
“There’s no real reason for them to go back. I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States,” he continued. “We’re going to save a lot of money.”
It wasn’t clear if he was joking, and a White House spokesperson didn’t clarify.
The international community hasn’t viewed the move lightly. The New York Times called Putin’s decree the “harshest such diplomatic move since a similar rupture in 1986, in the waning days of the Soviet Union.”
Spurred by continuing evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and boost Trump, Congress passed the new sanctions bill — which also limits the ability of Trump to lift sanctions without Congressional approval — near-unanimously. Trump let the bill sit on his desk for more than a week, arguing that it infringed on his Constitutional powers. He eventually signed it on Aug. 3, without the typical public ceremony attended by press and TV cameras.
The U.S. Embassy is believed to have 1,279 staffers in Moscow at four diplomatic compounds. Many of those are actually Russians, who are employed in service positions such as drivers, caterers and administrative staff.
The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman pointed out that any expelled U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers will still be on the government payroll.