He may have been joking, but President Trump’s expression of gratitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin for cutting hundreds of U.S. diplomatic personnel was no laughing matter for many U.S. foreign service officers.
Their anger and concern poured out on social media and elsewhere Friday, a day after Trump repeatedly thanked Putin for ordering the State Department to cut 755 diplomats and staff from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and three consulates, saying, “Now we have a smaller payroll.”
”Memo To WH: Fewer US diplomats means less protection 4 Americans, fewer sales of US goods, less reporting/advocacy of key issues of war & peace,” Laura Kennedy, a retired U.S. ambassador who was twice assigned to Moscow, wrote on Twitter in a typical response.
“Trump words were despicable,” she added.
It’s not yet clear how many of the 755 are U.S. diplomats who would be forced to leave Russia but presumably would continue to work for the State Department, and how many are Russian drivers, secretaries and other contract workers who could lose their jobs.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he will respond to Moscow by Sept. 1, the deadline Putin set. The State Department has called Putin’s order “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”
The Kremlin announcement on July 30 that the U.S. must cut hundreds of diplomatic staff seemed likely to escalate tensions between Moscow and Washington. But Trump said nothing about it in public until reporters sought his response Thursday at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on what the White House calls a working vacation.
“I want to thank [Putin] 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 said, flashing a small grin.
“There’s no reason for [the diplomats] to go back,” he added. “I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”
Although White House aides sought to downplay Trump’s comments, or suggested he was being sarcastic, they were a stinging blow for many current and former State Department staff. Under Putin, American diplomats have been harassed, surveilled and even physically attacked in Moscow.
R. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of State and ambassador to NATO under…