Trump’s thanks aren’t funny to U.S. diplo­mats

Putin’s or­der to reduce Amer­i­can per­son­nel is met with grat­i­tude for a ‘smaller pay­roll.’

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tracy Wilkin­son tracy.wilkin­son @la­times.com

WASHINGTON — He now says he was be­ing sar­cas­tic, but Pres­i­dent Trump’s ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin for cut­ting hun­dreds of U.S. diplo­matic per­son­nel was no laugh­ing matter for many Amer­i­can for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cers.

Their anger and con­cern poured out on so­cial me­dia and else­where Fri­day, a day af­ter Trump re­peat­edly thanked Putin for or­der­ing the State De­part­ment to cut 755 diplo­mats and staff from the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow and three con­sulates in Rus­sia, say­ing, “Now we have a smaller pay­roll.”

“Memo To WH: Fewer US diplo­mats means less pro­tec­tion 4 Amer­i­cans, fewer sales of US goods, less re­port­ing/ad­vo­cacy of key is­sues of war & peace,” Laura Kennedy, a re­tired U.S. am­bas­sador who was twice as­signed to Moscow, wrote on Twit­ter in a typ­i­cal re­sponse.

“Trump words were de­spi­ca­ble,” she added.

It’s not yet clear how many of the 755 are U.S. diplo­mats who would be forced to leave Rus­sia but pre­sum­ably would con­tinue to work for the State De­part­ment, and how many are Rus­sian driv­ers, sec­re­taries and other con­tract work­ers who could lose their jobs.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has said he will re­spond to Moscow by Sept. 1, the dead­line Putin set. The State De­part­ment has called Putin’s or­der “a re­gret­table and un­called-for act.”

The Krem­lin an­nounce­ment on July 30 that the U.S. must cut hun­dreds of diplo­matic staff seemed likely to es­ca­late ten­sions be­tween Moscow and Washington. But Trump said noth­ing about it in public until re­porters sought his re­sponse Thurs­day at his golf course in Bed­min­ster, N.J., where he is on what the White House calls a work­ing va­ca­tion.

“I want to thank [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 said, flash­ing a small grin.

“There’s no rea­son for [the diplo­mats] to go back,” he added. “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.”

Al­though White House aides sought to down­play Trump’s com­ments, they were a sting­ing blow for many cur­rent and former State De­part­ment staffers. Un­der Putin, U.S. diplo­mats have been ha­rassed, surveilled and even phys­i­cally at­tacked in Moscow.

On Fri­day, when re­porters asked whether he was be­ing sar­cas­tic, Trump replied, “Ab­so­lutely.”

R. Ni­cholas Burns, a former un­der­sec­re­tary of State and am­bas­sador to NATO un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, called it “lam­en­ta­ble” and “shame­ful” that the pres­i­dent treated ca­reer diplo­mats “with such dis­re­spect.”

He called on Tiller­son to speak out on the staff ’s be­half. “If [Trump] was jok­ing, it shows his true char­ac­ter,” Burns added.

“The State and in­ter­a­gency com­mu­nity is think­ing about our col­leagues in Moscow and Con­sulates as they pre­pare for dif­fi­cult weeks ahead,” tweeted John Hef­fern, the cur­rent deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State who deals with Rus­sia.

If Trump’s ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude to Putin seemed odd, it was con­sis­tent with his cam­paign and White House ten­ure so far. Trump has never once pub­licly crit­i­cized the au­to­cratic Rus­sian leader, rais­ing alarm in Congress and among U.S. al­lies in Europe.

Some of Trump’s crit­ics noted his con­tin­ued praise for Putin even as Congress and a spe­cial coun­sel ap­pointed by the Jus­tice De­part­ment have stepped up in­ves­ti­ga­tions of whether Trump’s cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia dur­ing the cam­paign last year.

“How can Trump sup­port­ers praise the pres­i­dent’s tough talk on North Korea and de­fend his weak talk on Putin? I just don’t get it,” Michael McFaul, U.S. am­bas­sador to Rus­sia from 2012 to 2014, wrote on Twit­ter.

Trump’s com­ments were “one of the most em­bar­rass­ing, un­pa­tri­otic, and un­in­formed com­ments our pres­i­dent has made (re­cently),” he added.

Pa­trick Gran­field, a mem­ber of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, al­luded to a claim Trump once made about his own iron­clad base of po­lit­i­cal sup­port.

“Putin could stand in the mid­dle of 5th av­enue & shoot some­one & not lose Trump’s sup­port,” he tweeted.

The Amer­i­can For­eign Ser­vice Assn., a non­profit that ad­vo­cates on be­half of U.S. diplo­mats, voiced its sup­port for an of­ten be­lea­guered work force.

“Amer­ica’s lead­er­ship is be­ing chal­lenged by ad­ver­saries who would like to see us fail,” said Bar­bara Stephen­son, the group’s pres­i­dent. “We can­not let that hap­pen. With all the threats fac­ing our na­tion, we need a prop­erly re­sourced and staffed For­eign Ser­vice more than ever, and we need them where they do the most good — posted abroad, de­liv­er­ing for the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

Rus­sian of­fi­cials pooh­poohed Trump’s com­ments, say­ing they were clearly sar­cas­tic, and ac­cused the State De­part­ment of lack­ing a sense of hu­mor.

In De­cem­ber, Obama expelled 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats, al­legedly spies, in re­sponse to Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion. FBI agents also seized two Rus­sianowned com­pounds on Long Is­land, N.Y., and in Mary­land that it said were used for es­pi­onage. Putin de­layed a Rus­sian re­sponse, pre­sum­ably in hopes of im­prov­ing re­la­tions with the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

That changed af­ter Congress over­whelm­ingly voted last month to im­pose new sanc­tions on Moscow, and Trump re­luc­tantly signed the bill be­cause it had a ve­to­proof ma­jor­ity.

In Putin’s or­der to kick U.S. diplo­mats out, he also an­nounced the seizure of two U.S.-owned com­pounds near Moscow that were used by Amer­i­can diplo­mats.

Mladen Antonov AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE U.S. EM­BASSY in Moscow. U.S. diplo­matic staff in Rus­sia has been or­dered cut by 755 peo­ple.

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