Trump thanks Putin for kicking out diplomatic staff

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US president slammed for saying Kremlin's move would save the US 'a lot of money'

WASHINGTON : US President Donald Trump thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the US to slash its diplomatic staff in Russia, in remarks likely to rekindle criticism of Mr Trump's kid-gloves handling of Mr Putin.

Breaking nearly two weeks of silence on Mr Putin's July 30 order cutting US embassy and consulate staff by nearly two-thirds, Mr Trump said: "I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll."

Mr 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 Mr 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".

Yesterday, the State Department had no immediate reaction to the comments Mr Trump made while on vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Mr Putin, reacting to new sanctions imposed by the US Congress and reluctantly signed into law by Mr 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.

Intended to be flippant or not, Mr Trump's remarks yesterday were immediately denounced by current and former US officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations, Reuters reported.

Mr Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official under President George W. Bush, called Mr Trump's comments "grotesque".

"If he was joking, he should know better," said Mr 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."

The State Department has been "horrified and rattled" by Mr Trump's remarks, said a veteran US diplomat who has served in Russia, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ms Heather Conley, formerly a top State Department official dealing with European affairs, said the expulsions of hundreds of people from an important US embassy is extraordinary and "it is very difficult to see how the president could view these expulsions as a 'positive' development in any form".

US officials told The New York Times that the reduction ordered by Mr Putin will have a significant effect on services, resulting, for example, in much slower processing of visas for Russian travellers to the US.

Another major function of any embassy is to collect local information and intelligence to inform policymakers back home, which will likely be hindered as a result.

"Cutting our staff by 755 people will do tremendous damage to our diplomatic mission in Russia," said Mr Michael A. McFaul, who was ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama.

He said: "That our president does not appreciate this obvious fact suggests he doesn't understand what embassies do in the pursuit of American national interests."

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice chastised Mr Trump for his comments.

"This is insulting to US diplomats," she tweeted. "Also, really, really stupid."

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