President Donald Trump on August 10 shrugged off Russian President Vladimir Putin's demand for deep cuts in staff at U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, thanking Putin for a move he said would help cut U.S. payroll costs.
Trump's remarks to reporters as he vacationed at his golf resort in New Jersey were his first public response to Putin's July 30 demand that the United States cut 755 staffers, out of a total of about 1,200, at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia.
The comments came as investigations into allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and whether there was any collusion between Russia and associates of Trump, who said he was "surprised" at a recent FBI search of his former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort's home in connection with its probe.
Reporters who questioned the president said it wasn't clear whether Trump was joking when he said that cutting 755 diplomatic employees would actually help him achieve his plan to slash the State Department budget by about one-third.
Nearly 24 hours after Trump made the remarks, NBC News, in a post on Twitter, quoted White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders as saying he "was being sarcastic."
"I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down on payroll," Trump said. "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.... We'll save a lot of money."
Moscow ordered the reduction in U.S. diplomatic staff after U.S. lawmakers passed a bill imposing additional sanctions on Russia over its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and other issues. Trump signed it on August 2 but said it was flawed. The Russian demand was also a response to President Barack Obama's decision in December 2016 to expel 35 Russian diplomats and seize two Russian diplomatic country retreats in the United States.
The U.S. intelligence community issued an assessment in January saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an "influence campaign" targeting the U.S. election, with goals that included undermining trust in the U.S. electoral process, denigrating Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and helping Trump.
The Justice Department's investigation of Russian meddling was taken over this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who recently assembled a grand jury to assist his effort.
Separate congressional investigations of Russia's role lent impetus to the historic move by Congress to enact legislation tightening sanctions against Russia.
Trump signed the legislation reluctantly and has repeatedly called the investigations a "witch hunt" that will uncover no collusion between his campaign and Russia or other wrongdoing.
Trump said on August 10 that he was taken aback by the FBI's raid on Manafort's home last month.
"They do that very seldom. I was surprised to see it," he said, adding that Manafort only ran his campaign for "a very short period of time."
"I thought it was a very strong signal," Trump said.
Manafort, who denies any wrongdoing, has ties to the political party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who lives in exile in Russia after abandoning power in February 2014 under pressure from protesters.
Current and former diplomats were stunned by Trump's remarks welcoming 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 Reuters.
"If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats," Burns said.
Reuters cited a current diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that State Department staffers were "horrified and rattled" by Trump's remarks.
There has been no public statement from the State Department on Trump's comments.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters