By Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the United States to slash its diplomatic staff in Russia, remarks likely to rekindle criticism of Trump’s kid-gloves handling of Putin.
Breaking nearly two weeks of silence on Putin’s July 30 order cutting U.S. embassy and consulate staff by nearly two thirds, Trump said: “I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.”
Trump said “there’s no real reason for them to go back” and “we’re going to save a lot of money,” in response to Putin’s Cold War-style move, differing from the reactions of other presidents in similar circumstances in the past.
It also clashes with a State Department official having called Moscow’s order “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”
On Thursday, the State Department had no immediate reaction to the comments Trump made to reporters while on vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign by hacking and other methods to help Trump, a Republican. They are also looking into possible collusion between the campaign and Russian officials. Moscow has repeatedly denied meddling in the election and Trump denies any campaign collusion.
Putin, reacting to new sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress and reluctantly signed into law by Trump, ordered Washington to cut 755 of its 1,200 embassy and consulate staff by September. Many of those affected likely will be local Russian staffers.
It was also a tit-for-tat reaction to former President Barack Obama expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the United States last December over the intelligence agency reports.
During his campaign and since becoming president, Trump has consistently called for better ties with Russia, declined to criticize Putin and refused to unequivocally embrace the conclusions of the intelligence agencies.
Intended to be flippant or not, Trump’s remarks on Thursday were immediately denounced by current and former U.S. officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranking official under Republican President George W. Bush, called Trump’s comments “grotesque.”
“If he was joking, he should know better,” said Burns, now a professor at Harvard…