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'Dumbfounded' diplomats say Trump's comments about embassy cuts 'make him Putin's patsy'

Photo: Saul Loeb /AFP/Getty Images
  • Trump thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin last week for saving the US money by cutting the US’ embassy staff in Moscow.
  • Career diplomats and foreign policy experts were left “dumbfounded” by the comments, which they said sent “precisely the wrong message” to Russia.
  • Many noted that Trump’s comments align with his consistent refusal to criticise the Russian president.

Career diplomats and foreign service officers were left “dumbfounded” and “frankly, insulted” after President Donald Trump thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday for cutting nearly 800 employees from the US’ embassy and consulates in Russia earlier this month.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I’m concerned,” Trump told reporters on Thursday in his first public comments about the embassy cuts. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. 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 doubled down on Friday, telling reporters he was being “sarcastic” before saying again: “But really we’re going to save a lot of money.”

The comments astonished career foreign service officers, many of whom were at a loss for words in interviews on Friday.

“It is incredibly insulting to a group of people who are serving in a hostile environment,” said Richard Boucher, who was the longest-serving assistant secretary of state for public affairs in State Department history. “It’s pretty obvious that the president and his administration as a whole do not value or understand the function of diplomats or diplomacy.”

Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights under former President Barack Obama until February, said Trump’s remarks “tell people who are serving the US overseas that their commander-in-chief thinks they’re worthless.”

“I hope that people around the world who are serving the United States understand that their country remains in awe of their service even if their president isn’t worthy of it,” Malinowski said.

‘Their commander in chief is insulting them’

Russia’s Foreign Ministry ordered the number of US diplomats in Russia to be slashed by roughly 60% late last month in retaliation for the US’ new sanctions legislation. The Kremlin said later, however, that the US can choose which employees to keep, meaning that many diplomats will likely be able to stay while local employees — who deal primarily with day-to-day consular operations — will be pushed out.

“These are people who are taking on rolls like taking out the trash and driving the supply trucks, and those who don’t get cut will now have double or triple the workload that they had before,” said Boucher. “And their commander in chief is insulting them. What strange motivation would prompt anyone to say something like this?”

Derek Chollet, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council, said he was surprised by the “callousness” of Trump’s remarks.

“There’s a human element to this,” Chollet said. “He thanked an adversary for essentially putting people who are serving the United States out on the street.”

Chollet noted that the employees will likely get reassigned. But he emphasised the fact that they were “performing jobs the US has deemed important.”

“For Trump to shrug these cuts off as no big deal is a reflection of someone who doesn’t understand what it means to be president,” Chollet said. “These are his people. They are his employees.”

Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at George Washnington University, said Trump’s comments signalled to the State Department staff, both in the US and serving in US missions abroad, “that he doesn’t value their service.”

“And he signals to the Kremlin that he won’t push back when they act against American interests,” Biddle said. “None of this is good.”

Vladimir PutinAdam Berry/Getty ImagesVladimir Putin

‘It makes him Putin’s patsy’

Many pointed to Trump’s comments as another example of his consistent and longstanding unwillingness to criticise Vladimir Putin.

“Trump takes most every opportunity to talk about leaders of other countries not doing enough for the United States, but he refuses to do so with Putin,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group. “It’s hard to imagine that’s purely because he likes the guy.”

Malinowski, who blew the whistle in January on the Trump administration’s early inquiries into lifting or easing sanctions on Russia, echoed Bremmer’s sentiments.

“The only thing Trump has expressed a constant attitude about in the last two years, apart from self-love, is Russia,” he said. “The mystery behind that is not yet fully unravelled. But we’ve seen the phenomenon.”

Malinowski pointed to the statement Trump issued upon signing the new sanctions bill into law last month in which he criticised Congress, rather than Putin, for hampering US-Russia relations. The White House was particularly irked by a provision in the legislaton that would require Trump to get congressional approval before altering or lifting sanctions on Russia.

“The only reason why Putin would still view Trump as a net asset is that he is helping to destroy American democracy around the world — and that is still worth the purchase price,” Malinowski said. “But I would guess that Putin’s level of respect for Trump, either as friend or adversary, is pretty darn low right now.”

Boucher agreed.

“Trump has sent a signal to the Russians that they can just slap these people around and abuse them,” he said. “It makes him Putin’s patsy.”

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