President Donald Trump on Thursday said that he is “very thankful” that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats, telling reporters in New Jersey that the decision will help the U.S. cut down on salaries.
“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 a large number of people because now we will have a smaller payroll,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. … We’re going to save a lot of money.”
The comments were Trump’s first addressing Putin’s decision last month to expel 755 diplomats and technical personnel from the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia, according to The Post.
Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 included a 29 percent cut of State Department funding, NPR reported.
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email to The New York Times on Friday that the president was making a joke.
“He was being sarcastic,” she told the newspaper.
Still, some lawmakers questioned Trump’s decision to praise Putin.
“After weeks of silence regarding Vladimir Putin's outrageous expulsion of hundreds of U.S. embassy personnel, President Trump once again let Russia off the hook and instead insulted America’s diplomats,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
“No doubt, the President's staff will eventually try to clean up after the parade by claiming it was a joke, but there's nothing funny about this,” he said.
According to Politico, “many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers. The local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments, but cost savings are possible in the long run.”
Unidentified sources told the news site that most of the U.S. diplomats made to leave Russia will be moved to different posts.
Putin’s decision to kick American diplomats out of the country came in retaliation for sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S. Trump signed the bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support and required congressional approval to lift the restrictions, although he criticized it as being “seriously flawed.”
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