President Trump is thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling 755 staff members from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
“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 of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump stated.
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.
On its face, Trump’s response to Putin’s embassy purge campaign appears facetious, if not sardonic. However, the president’s background in business lends credence to the theory that Trump is being entirely serious about the reduction to the “payroll.” The fact is, sometimes the things that come out the president’s mouth are entirely meaningless. Other times, he means what he says and his actions back up his words.
On more than one occasion, administration officials have had to correct, reframe, or altogether reword Trump’s impulsive remarks only to be undermined by the president himself in a follow-up rant.
With an ongoing federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with the Russian government shadowing his presidency, Trump’s playful attitude toward Putin certainly doesn’t help cast aside the perception that the Commander-in-Chief is a little too sympathetic to Moscow, a hostile foreign actor that is engaged in an active effort to undermine U.S. democratic institutions through cyber-warfare.
More to the point, Trump’s cheeky and lighthearted comments about Putin’s expulsion decree downplay the strategic importance of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia and Eastern Europe.
As The Daily Wire reported, Russian intelligence and security operatives have spent the last few years harassing and intimidating American diplomats and embassy personnel all across the European continent.
An alarming report by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin revealed that Russian intel have used a variety of intimidation tactics, including killing the dog of one U.S. diplomat, to push American assets further and further from former Soviet satellite states.
Here’s what Rogin reported in June 2016:
… Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary. Some of the intimidation has been routine: following diplomats or their family members, showing up at their social events uninvited or paying reporters to write negative stories about them.
But many of the recent acts of intimidation by Russian security services have crossed the line into apparent criminality. In a series of secret memos sent back to Washington, described to me by several current and former U.S. officials who have written or read them, diplomats reported that Russian intruders had broken into their homes late at night, only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave. One diplomat reported that an intruder had defecated on his living room carpet.
Detailing the abuse experienced by U.S. diplomatic personnel and the embassy in Moscow specifically, Rogin explained further:
In Moscow, where the harassment is most pervasive, diplomats reported slashed tires and regular harassment by traffic police. Former ambassador Michael McFaul was hounded by government-paid protesters, and intelligence personnel followed his children to school.
After spending years on a covert program to harass, intimidate, and threaten American assets in Russia and Eastern Europe, Putin finally went out in the open with his anti-Americanism and expelled 755 U.S. embassy staff members in late June of this year.
Rather than condemning Putin in the strongest possible terms, President Trump has chosen to talk about the “payroll.”
Well let’s talk about the “payroll.”
The average U.S. embassy employee makes $21 an hour, or $44,500 a year. That’s 31% lower than the national average of $61,000 a year. Granted, actual diplomats make a six-figure annual salary, but there are far less diplomats than diplomatic staff. The vast majority of the people expelled by Putin were embassy employees, not diplomats.
And it’s not like U.S. embassy employees simply lose their jobs after a foreign leader demands their expulsion. They get moved around to different countries and posts. More importantly, the amount of money the United States spends on diplomatic staff is negligible compared to the priceless benefits diplomatic work provides. Not only do diplomatic staff (in Russia and Eastern Europe in particular) work with their foreign counterparts to ensure regional stability, but they gather vital intelligence on hostile enemy activities and plans.
Here’s a not-so-secret secret: Nearly every country in the world houses spies in their embassies abroad; the United States is no exception. In all likelihood, some of the embassy staff members were working to obtain intelligence on Russia. Russia is doing the same thing here in the United States. The spy games didn’t end when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Nonetheless, Putin’s expulsion of diplomatic staff is loaded with symbolic weight. He’s projecting his power and Trump is refusing to retaliate in kind. To be fair, Trump’s recent decision to let a sanctions bill (targeting Russia) come to his desk without taking out his veto pen is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.
Putin will test Trump the same way he tested former President Obama when the Russian army invaded Crimea and bombed the Syrian opposition into submission. Putin will continue his unfettered power-grab, threatening NATO, U.S. allies and America itself, until the the world’s sole superpower stops bluffing and finally decides to do something about holding the Russian bear accountable.