U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for slashing the number of U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia, "because now we have a smaller payroll."
"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 of a large number of people," Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. "There's no real reason for them to go back."
Putin, reacting to new sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress, on July 30 ordered Washington to cut 755 of its 1,200 embassy and consulate staff by September. Many of those affected are likely to be local Russian staffers. [nL5N1KM3ZT]
It was unclear if Trump was joking in his comments, his first substantive reaction to Putin's move.
Nicholas Burns, formerly the State Department's third-ranking official, called Trump's comments "grotesque."
"If he was joking, he should know better," said Burns, now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats."
Trump's remarks are at odds with the State Department's reaction to Putin's order. A State Department official on July 30 called the Russian move "a regrettable and uncalled-for act."
Trump also said he has not given any thought to the possibility of firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.
He said he was surprised by the FBI raid last month on his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, adding that it sent a "strong signal."
(Reporting by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler)