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 U.S. 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, 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."
On Friday, when reporters asked whether he was being sarcastic, Trump replied, "Absolutely."
Although White House aides sought to downplay Trump's earlier comments, they were a stinging blow for many current and former State Department staff. Under Putin, American diplomats have been harassed, surveilled and even physically attacked in Moscow.
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 inter-agency 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 group 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 pooh-poohed Trump's comments, saying they were clearly sarcastic, and accused the State Department of lacking a sense of humor.
In December, President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, allegedly spies, in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. FBI agents also seized two Russian-owned compounds on Long Island, N.Y., and in eastern Maryland, that it said were used for espionage.
Putin delayed a Russian response, supposedly 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 veto-proof 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.
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5:55 p.m: This article has been updated to report that President Trump says he was being sarcastic when he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for cutting hundreds of U.S. diplomatic personnel.