On Thursday, Trump expressed gratitude for Putin’s decision to reducing the number of US diplomats in Russia by 775, saying the decision would help the US government save money.
"I want to thank him [Putin] 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 journalists on Thursday at his golf club in New Jersey.
"The president was being sarcastic," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said as quoted by NBC News. "We take seriously Moscow's unwarranted actions against our personnel and diplomatic properties, and we are exploring our options."
WH official says @POTUS was being sarcastic when he thanked Putin for expelling US officials from Russia.— margaret brennan (@margbrennan) 11 августа 2017 г.
A senior US diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks "outrageous."
"This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm's way," the diplomat told Politico.
Note: the Politico article has since been removed or replaced, and the hyperlink has been changed to lead to an archived copy of the original article.
Another source said that many in the State Department were bewildered by the comment.
"I kid you not, I have heard from three different people in the last five minutes. Everyone seems pretty amazed. This statement is naive and shortsighted. It sends a terrible signal to local employees everywhere," one State Department official said.
In turn, Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the second Bush administration, called the remark "shameful."
"He justifies mistreatment of U.S. diplomats by Putin," Burns wrote on Twitter.
A shameful statement by Pres. Trump. He justifies mistreatment of US diplomats by Putin. If he was joking, it shows his true character https://t.co/BH9ru1m46R— Nicholas Burns (@RNicholasBurns) 10 августа 2017 г.
Trump’s remark also angered former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who wrote on Twitter, "Imagine dissing Americans – patriots serving our country under difficult conditions in Russia."
Imagine dissing Americans —patriots serving our country under difficult conditions in Russia —to praise Putin. Our president did today. https://t.co/KovoLuMISa— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) 10 августа 2017 г.
"Trump just applauded cuts of 755 in Russian embassy. Maybe he should look to trim his own staff?" he added.
McFaul also expressed regret that the expulsion of American diplomats will be negative for bilateral relations, since they are engaged in gathering crucial information on Russia.
"Our diplomats, professional staff, and military serving in Russia provide Washington with invaluable information about Russia," he wrote on Twitter.
The diplomat added, "Imagine wanting to know less about Russia's military modernization! That's what Trump praised today."
Imagine wanting to know less about Russia's military modernization! That's what Trump praised today. https://t.co/qMorkknjhU— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) 10 августа 2017 г.
Mikhail Sinelnikov-Orishak, a political analyst and specialist in American studies, noted that McFaul’s openness concerning the US diplomatic mission was surprising.
"It’s not like we don’t know that American diplomats gather information, among other duties. But this was never emphasized. Embassies are believed to work to promote and develop mutual understanding and confidence, to improve bilateral ties. This is the priority goal of a diplomatic mission. But what McFaul said about gathering information was unexpected," the expert told Radio Sputnik.
Not only American diplomats, but also many ordinary people did not get the sarcastic remark, storming social media with posts criticizing Trump.
Trump Thanks Putin For Kicking Out Hundreds Of Our Embassy Staff…imagine Repub's reaction if Obama had said this! pic.twitter.com/UINNi7HSw0— Trump's ZombieLand (@StevenReyCristo) 11 августа 2017 г.
Does Trump not understand that Putin's kicking out ambassadors doesn't actually "fire" them? They're still on our payroll. 🙄 #TheBeat— Alicia Fox (@aliciafoxrocks) 10 августа 2017 г.
I initially dismissed the "Trump thanks Putin for kicking out our diplomats" thing as a joke headline. Evidently not.— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) 10 августа 2017 г.
"If the US president decided to come up with a joke instead of seriously talking about real and very difficult problems in Russia-US relations, we are ready to respond in the same spirit. Our answer might roughly be: 'If we knew in advance that the US was mostly concerned with the cost-cutting for diplomatic staff, then would certainly help,'" Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chairman of the parliament's upper chamber's Defense and Security Committee, said Friday.
"So, Mr. Trump, how many more diplomats should we expel that the US budget finally sighs with relief. Please, tell us the exact figure," he added ironically.
According to Dmitry Novikov, first deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee of Russia's lower house of parliament, Trump’s remark indicates that the expulsion of Russian diplomats was painful for Washington.
"Trump had to comment on the event somehow and that is why he used such a playful manner, when in fact this stresses that the decision taken by the Russian side is quite painful for Washington," Novikov told Sputnik.
Nevertheless, the sensitive reaction of American diplomats to Trump’s remark might rather indicate a widening rift between the presidential administration and the State Department.
"It's no secret that the State Department is waging an open political war, which includes policy insubordination and press campaigns, against the Trump White House," a veteran foreign policy analyst said.
Moreover, CNN reported last month that the State Department may soon face a massive shake-up, including the removal of State Secretary Tillerson. According to the broadcaster, Tillerson has serious differences with the White House, including over Iran and personnel.