Even if this is a joke it’s still a conspicuous attempt to avoid criticizing Putin in public, a curious yet longstanding habit of a guy who’s famously not shy about attacking other people who’ve made him unhappy. And by “other people who’ve made him unhappy,” I mean, just for starters, his own Attorney General and the Republican Senate majority leader. We’re 10 months into the Russiagate probe and not a single compelling piece of evidence has emerged to suggest that Trump himself colluded with Russia during the campaign. But I go on wondering because of moments like this. It’s inexplicable that a strongman president would consistently refuse the opportunity to criticize a highly unpopular foreign leader (Putin’s rating is unfavorable even among Republicans), especially after he’s just taken a bit of aggressive action against American diplomats. Same goes for Trump’s reaction to Congress’s sanctions bill passed last week:

That was an opportunity for him to bat down some of the Russiagate criticism by lining up with Congress against Putin. He didn’t like the bill because it tied his hands on lifting sanctions on Russia without Congress’s permission but he could have spun it to his advantage. “Happy to sign a bill that reflects America’s economic strength!” Or “If the fake news media were right about collusion, would I have signed a bill targeting Russia?” He could have gone really bold by finally backing up his intelligence bureaucracy and declaring that Russia deserved a little punishment for its campaign hacking last year, but he’s never going to admit that they were definitively to blame for fear that it’ll somehow delegitimize his victory. Instead he scrapped all of that and blamed Congress for being too tough on Moscow. And now, given a chance to side with American diplomats who were booted out of Russia in response to the sanctions bill, instead of criticizing Putin he tries to play it off half-jokingly as a money-saver. North Korea gets an overt threat of nuclear destruction from the president. Russia doesn’t even merit a “Sad!” on Twitter.

The “joke” doesn’t even make sense. U.S. diplomats don’t leave the government payroll just because they’ve been sent home.

Nicholas Burns, who worked in the State Department under Dubya, shakes his head:

There must be no more demoralized agency in the U.S. government right now than the State Department. Their budget’s been targeted for cuts, their secretary is derided as ineffective and appears subordinate to Jared Kushner, they can’t even get the president to say a harsh word to Putin in their defense. Just this morning Tillerson had to suffer the indignity of Sebastian Gorka warning him on BBC radio to stay in his lane when it comes to North Korea. I’d predict mass resignations if not for the fact that, er, pretty much no one’s working at State in the first place right now. This clip won’t help with recruiting.