QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy in Russia?
TRUMP: No, I want to thank [Putin], because we’re trying to cut down on 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. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.
President Trump made these comments during an impromptu press conference on Thursday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. He doubled down on them on Friday.
His press secretary related that the president was “joking” and being “sarcastic” — seemingly the go-to response for every comment he makes that receives significant push back for its outrageous nature. But let’s assume that, in fact, he is joking. It is still an outrageous comment coming from a president and it shows no respect for his diplomats and the important work that they do, including at times putting their own well-being at risk. Perhaps a little context will help to bring this home.
At the end of July Russian President Putin gave the United States until 1 September to remove 755 diplomatic and technical support personnel from our embassy in Moscow. In addition, he seized two properties used by the U.S. embassy. All of this was in retaliation for the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a few days earlier.
Until last Thursday, the president made no comment about the Russian actions. None. Eleven days without comment on that situation despite having lots to say about stories on “Fox and Friends” and a significant number of insignificant matters. He had time to Tweet numerous attacks on his own Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but has yet to utter one negative word about Russia, or Mr. Putin. He still has not done so. His first comment on a long-standing dispute with Russia was to “thank” Mr. Putin. Ha. Ha.
His remarks also reveal a lack of understanding of how these things work. It is also possible that he thinks of the diplomats as “employees” — perhaps the same way he thinks of the workers that make his shirts in Bangladesh. Obviously, Mr. Putin did not “let go” U.S. diplomats. He can’t, they are American citizens working for the U.S. government. And Mr. Putin did not “cut the payroll” or “save a lot of money” because those impacted people still receive pay checks. They will return to the U.S. or posted elsewhere overseas. Mr. Putin’s actions will have some impact on his own citizens’ pay checks, as there are some Russian nationals that work in our embassy and consulates in supporting roles that will lose their jobs.
The reported response from the career diplomats, current and past, was predictably swift. And they were not pleased. Coupled with what appears to be a secondary role for Secretary of State Tillerson and the fact that countless senior positions in the State Department critical to shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy have yet to be nominated, much less in position to help — including an ambassador to South Korea, which might be useful about now — it appears that President Trump has little use for, and certainly no regard for, the role our professional diplomats play in keeping our nation safe. I expect many to start voting with their feet and leaving the foreign service, further debilitating our ability to meet our national goals. Of course, to some presidential advisers, those that work in the Department of State are the worst of the “deep state.” They will be happy to see these professional diplomats resign. Apparently, President Trump agrees with that view.
He also apparently does not understand that far more U.S. government departments work in our overseas embassies than just from the Department of State. In an embassy such as ours in Moscow (the largest we currently have) there are personnel from the CIA, FBI, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and just about every agency in between. Losing these positions inhibits our ability to maintain some programs (remember, for example, that our NASA astronauts ride Russian rockets into space) but also inhibits our ability to gather valuable intelligence on every facet of life in Russia. The reduction will also have a significant impact on services provided to Americans in Russia as well as on Russians that may need visas or other assistance in travelling to the U.S.
President Trump’s cavalier attitude about nearly everything that does not benefit him directly is not only short-sighted in ensuring an effectively functioning government, it also shows his disdain for patriotic Americans that are at the front lines in keeping our nation safe.
In a week of events that were mind-boggling, one more reckless statement from the president was probably lost in the news of so many outrageous statements and careless Tweets. To me, however, his Russian statement represented all of the things that I worry about concerning our president. His lack of knowledge, his lack of intellectual curiosity about anything that has to do with basic civics, his lack of concern over anything that does not involve him personally, and the cavalier way that he treats people trying hard to serve him and the American public. I could go on.
Really Mr. President? I mean, really. As my grandmother would have said, “for goodness sake…”