President Trump is most comfortable when he’s on the verbal offensive. He loves a good war of words, whether his target is a foreign adversary, a foreign ally, a Republican rival, or Rosie O’Donnell. According to a New York Times tally, Trump has attacked 351 separate people, places, and things on Twitter alone since July 2015.
Those feuds make Trump’s refusal to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin all the more conspicuous.
On July 30, Putin announced that Russia was forcing the U.S. State Department to reduce its staff in Russia by 755 people. (For the most part, those who were laid off were Russians working for the embassy, not American diplomats.) Trump, who often can’t let a provocation on cable news go unanswered for more than a few hours, was uncharacteristically quiet.
He finally broke his silence, after a fashion, on August 3, the day he signed a bill increasing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for interfering in the 2016 election. Trump had opposed the legislation, but it passed Congress with veto-proof majorities, leaving him little choice but to sign it. There are many reasons Russo-American relations are strained: Russian anger at expansion of NATO, longstanding global rivalries, the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, years of Russian human-rights abuses, and Russian tampering with the election. Trump chose to place blame for the rocky state of the relationship not on any of those issues, and certainly not on Putin, but squarely on Congress. Just for good measure, he tossed in an unrelated jab at the failure of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan:
Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
There was still not a word about Putin’s forced cuts at the U.S. embassy. Finally, on Thursday, Trump weighed in. His comments were surprising—not only did he not criticize Putin, but he thanked him:
I want to thank him 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 because now we have a smaller payroll. 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.
Was Trump speaking with tongue in cheek? It’s possible, but he didn’t smile when he said it. (The president has often tried to pass off apparently serious comments as jokes after the fact, in order to defuse situations.) The remark fits with his attempt to cut costs at the State Department and his disdain for traditional diplomacy.