During a meeting at his golf club in New Jersey, President Donald Trump told reporters on Thursday that he was "thankful" Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the removal of hundreds of U.S. diplomats inside the country because the U.S. has been "trying to cut down our payroll."
In response to recent the sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S., Putin expelled a total of 755 diplomats from the country, giving them until September 1 to leave.
"I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I'm concerned," Trump told reporters. "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," he continued, it was the president's first comments since Putin's decision was announced.
The president contradicted his own State Department which originally had said Putin's actions were "a regrettable and uncalled-for act," Reuters reported. While the State Department has had no official reaction to Trump's remarks to this point, one veteran U.S. diplomat who has served in Russia told Rueters that the State Department was "horrified and rattled" by the president's words.
While the State Department has had no official reaction to Trump's remarks to this point, former staffers were baffled and called the move "grotesque."
"If he was joking, he should know better," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official under Republican President George W. Bush, Reuters reported. "If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats," he added.
"It is very difficult to see how the president could view these expulsions as a 'positive' development in any form," said Heather Conley, formerly a top State Department official dealing with European affairs, according to Reuters.
It was one of Trump's latest jaw-dropping moments, as his campaign is under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for possibly colluding with the Russians. The president is also being investigated for alleged obstruction of justice after saying he fired former FBI Director James Comey in an attempt to scale back the investigation on his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.