C’mon, says the White House, the president was joking. It was obvious sarcasm. Fair enough, but a Twitter pal asks an equally fair question: If yesterday’s comments were a joke, what’s Trump’s official statement on the expulsions?
Or is a joke all we’re going to get from him on this?
WH official says @POTUS was being sarcastic when he thanked Putin for expelling US officials from Russia.
— margaret brennan (@margbrennan) August 11, 2017
If Obama’s response to a hostile act by Russia had been to make a glib joke downplaying the incident, conservative media would have had something to say about it no matter how obvious his sarcasm was. As a matter of basic political acumen, Trump should know by now how this sort of tin-eared reaction to something Putin’s done risks deepening the Russiagate suspicions among everyone outside of his 35-percent base:
A State Dept. official who is a foreign service officer told ABC News the message from Trump thanking Putin is “really quite sad.”
“I’m not even angry, it’s just saddening,” the official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official cited what they say is the perception among State Dept. employees that Trump does not support the institution or its diplomats abroad and a sense that “he just doesn’t get it.”
A former U.S. ambassador also noted a pattern in the comments: “For reasons we do not yet know, the President cannot bring himself to criticize Putin.”
If Trump had prioritized diplomacy during his first six months and given Rex Tillerson free rein befitting his position, he might have enough goodwill banked at State to get the benefit of the doubt on a miscue like this even from his critics. The department’s barely staffed, though, and it’s Jared Kushner who’s off to the Middle East for peace talks, not T-Rex. Trump handed a club to his opponents within the State bureaucracy with yesterday’s joke and may have lost some fencesitters:
A senior U.S. diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks “outrageous” and said it could lead more State Department staffers to head for the exits.
“This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” the diplomat said.
“I kid you not, I have heard from three different people in the last five minutes,” one State Department official told POLITICO shortly after Trump’s comments. “Everyone seems pretty amazed. This statement is naive and shortsighted. It sends a terrible signal to local employees everywhere.”
“THANK Putin?” another bewildered State Department official responded. “I don’t have words that are printable to describe my reaction.”
Good luck filling those vacancies at State after this. He could undo some of the damage, of course, by coming out today or this weekend with a strong statement criticizing Russia for the expulsion and defending U.S. diplomats. What conclusion should we draw if he doesn’t?
Read Tom Rogan for four reasons why yesterday’s sarcasm was self-sabotaging. Exit question: When does John Kelly pull Trump aside to explain that his “jokes” continue to make both of their jobs harder?