U.S. President Donald Trump said he was joking when he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering deep cuts in U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia because it saves the United States money.
"Absolutely," Trump said on August 11 after being asked by reporters whether he was being sarcastic a day earlier when he said that he "greatly" appreciated Putin's help in reducing the State Department's payroll costs.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also said in a Twitter post on August 11 that Trump "was being sarcastic" when he made the remarks.
Putin last month directed the United States to cut 755 out of about 1,200 employees at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia after the U.S. Congress passed a tough new law cementing sanctions against Moscow over its aggression in Ukraine and for allegedly meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump, who has proposed slashing the State Department's budget by about a third, said on August 10 that he was "very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll."
Those earlier remarks, coming amid investigations into alleged Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, had revived criticism that Trump is inclined to be soft on Putin.
Current and former diplomats were stunned after Trump seemed to welcome Moscow's massive cut in U.S. diplomatic staff.
"If he was joking, he should know better," Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official under Republican President George W. Bush, told the Reuters news agency.
"If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats," Burns said.
On August 11 after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other foreign policy advisers, Trump reverted to a more conventional stance on the staff cuts, saying the United States is preparing to respond to Putin's diplomatic slap with reciprocal measures by the end of the month.
With reporting by AP and Reuters