Updated Friday, 8:15 p.m. | President Donald Trump thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his decision to expel hundreds of American diplomats based in Moscow, saying it will help reduce the U.S. government’s payroll.
The Kremlin’s decision to expel 755 U.S. diplomats by Sept. 1 came after Congress overwhelmingly passed a measure aimed at imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. Trump, who signed the bill on Aug. 2, expressed his appreciation Thursday for Putin’s move.
“I want to thank you because we’re trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go a large number of people,” Trump told pool reporters in Bedminster, New Jersey.
“There’s no real reason for them to go back,” the president said when asked to respond to Putin’s decision. “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.”
But a day later, Trump said he was “absolutely” being sarcastic when he thanked Putin.
“I think you knew that,” he told reporters at his New Jersey golf club.
The sanctions bill punishes Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and for its military actions in Syria and Ukraine.
While Trump signed the bill, he harshly criticized the 517 lawmakers who voted in favor of it. Like past presidents, he took issue with a provision that limits his power to lift or ease the sanctions without the approval of Congress.
The president said he signed the measure “for the sake of national unity,” adding that it “represents the will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States.”
The new law comes amid a scandal over whether the president’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russian officials. Trump had appeared reluctant to enact such sanctions, but bowed to domestic political pressures, mostly from his own party.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.