President Trump said Thursday that he was "very thankful" that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the expulsion of hundreds of U.S. diplomats from the country in response to sanctions — because the administration needs to cut the State Department's budget anyway.
"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 Bedminster, N.J., golf club.
"There's no real reason for them to go back," the president continued. "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."
Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget proposed cutting the State Department budget by 29 percent.
The comment drew a swift rebuke from a former ambassador, Nicholas Burns. "A shameful statement by Pres. Trump. He justifies mistreatment of US diplomats by Putin. If he was joking, it shows his true character."
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also said in a statement that the president's comment "plumbs new depths of disrespect toward the men and women who sacrifice and serve our country" and that Trump should apologize.
"No doubt, the President's staff will eventually try to clean up after the parade by claiming it was a joke, but there's nothing funny about this," Engel said.
But, the president did not appear to be joking or responding sarcastically, making the comments all the more surprising — especially given the fact that he has come under fire for his praise of Putin in the past, and because there are several ongoing investigations regarding Russia's interference in last year's election and whether top Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia.
Putin announced last month that Russia would expel 755 U.S. diplomats and technical personnel from the country in response to new sanctions imposed by Congress intended to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. The bill passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, and Trump signed it in into law, though he did so while calling it "seriously flawed" and attaching a signing statement that detailed what he deemed its "unconstitutional provisions."
While Putin has denied the Russian government interfered in the election — and Trump himself has, at times, cast doubt on Russia's role — the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russian intelligence services, acting at Putin's direction, did interfere.
Many of the job cuts that happen as a result of Putin's directive will likely be Russian staffers. But some U.S. personnel will also have to leave the country. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that this will be a difficult undertaking.
"It is a complex logistical matter, moving people out to reach the limit imposed by the Russian government," Sullivan said.
NPR diplomacy correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.