President Trump made light today of Russia’s retaliation for congressional sanctions that entailed expelling hundreds of U.S. personnel from the embassy in Moscow, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin helped him with a cost-cutting measure.
“I want to thank him, because we’re trying to cut down on payroll,” Trump told reporters after a national security briefing at his golf club in Bedminister, N.J. “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. There’s no real reason for them to go back.”
“So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States,” he added. “We’ll save a lot of money.”
After the House and Senate passed new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea by veto-proof, nearly unanimous margins, including a provision requiring congressional approval of any administration sanctions rollback, the Kremlin moved forward with retaliatory measures before Trump signed the bill.
Putin ordered 755 American diplomatic personnel be cut and two diplomatic facilities in Moscow be shut down. “As you might have noticed, we waited quite some time in the hope things would change for the better,” Putin told state television at the end of July. “We hoped that the situation would change, but judging by everything, if it is going to change, then it won’t be soon… we have to show that we will not let this go unanswered.”
When Trump did sign the bill on Aug. 2, he included signing statements that made his displeasure with Congress’ action clear. He said that despite attempts “to work with Congress to make this bill better,” the bill “remains seriously flawed – particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
“We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary,” he said of Russia, not mentioning Putin’s expulsion of U.S. diplomatic personnel.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who tangled with Trump in a Twitter battle earlier in the week, told CNN that he wants to know “what kind of strategy is reflected in that remark” about Putin saving the administration money.
“What kind of signal is he sending to our allies with the intelligence community that he seemingly is not taking seriously a very serious action by Vladimir Putin, and one that may and probably should prompt some reaction from us? How does he then take stern and strong action in reaction to what Putin is doing when he is talking so facetiously about this?” Blumenthal asked. “Hardly a laughing matter when so many of our diplomats — and a lot of them are Russian employees, but some of them are serious diplomats and perhaps intelligence community operatives.”
U.S. diplomats expelled from Moscow remain with the State Department but will receive other assignments. The president of the diplomats’ union, the American Foreign Service Association, said after Trump’s remarks that “America’s leadership is being challenged by adversaries who would like to see us fail.”
‘We cannot let that happen,” continued Barbara Stephenson. “With all the threats facing our nation, we need a properly resourced and staffed Foreign Service more than ever, and we need them where they do the most good — posted abroad, delivering for the American people.”