President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats in retaliation for new economic sanctions, saying the staff moves will “save a lot of money” for the U.S.
“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 because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters at his golf club in New Jersey, according to a White House pool report. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. 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.”
It’s unclear whether that’s the case. More than two-thirds of U.S. government employees in Russia were foreign nationals ― not American citizens, according to a 2013 State Department report unearthed by The Washington Post. Though the U.S. may have to remove hundreds from its payroll, it’s unlikely anyone would be expelled from the country.
Putin announced last month he would require U.S. diplomatic missions to cut 755 workers, leaving 455 American employees at embassies and consulates in Russia. The State Department report said 333 U.S. citizens were working for the U.S. government in Russia in 2013.
The expulsions quickly followed passage of a bill in Congress imposing new sanctions on Russia as a response to intelligence agencies concluding Russian officials meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump reluctantly signed the law last week. It also sanctions Iran and North Korea.
“While I favor tough measures to punish and deter aggressive and destabilizing behavior by Iran, North Korea, and Russia, this legislation is significantly flawed,” Trump said after signing the bill.
American officials had long expected Moscow to retaliate after former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats last year in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, but the high number of diplomats Putin ordered out of the country came as a surprise.
As HuffPost’s Jessica Schulberg reported, diplomats say this round of expulsions from Russia is reminiscent of when the Soviet Union kicked hundreds of U.S. diplomatic staff from Moscow, creating a burden for the remaining diplomats in keeping the embassies running.
A White House official attempted to walk back Trump’s comments on Friday, saying the president was “being sarcastic” in his thanks to Putin, according to CBS News’ Margaret Brennan.
This article has been updated with a White House comment from Friday.