There's an expression in Trump World that the president and his allies are fond of: if you attack Donald Trump, he will punch back 10 times harder. It's a maxim that helps explain why the president tends to get a little hysterical in response to so many perceived slights.
But for Trump, the principle applies only to him personally: the president can't tolerate rebukes that target him, but affronts to the United States, in Trump's mind, are surprisingly acceptable.
Two weeks ago, in response to new economic sanctions approved by Congress, Vladimir Putin's Russian government announced it was expelling 755 people from the American embassy and consulate staff. It was a striking diplomatic move, and an escalation of tensions between the two countries, which seemed to warrant a stern White House response.
Trump team message on North Korea chaoticAug. 11, 201705:21
Trump, however, remained silent -- until yesterday.
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.
To the extent that reality has any meaning, Trump is badly confused about the relevant details. Putin did not "let go" of hundreds of American diplomatic workers -- these U.S. officials have been stationed in Russia, but they were not employees of the Russian government.
The substance of the president's comments are, by fair measure, total nonsense.
But that's really not what's important here. Rather, this is a dynamic in which the Putin government used harsh diplomatic measures to slap the United States in the face, and after two weeks of thought, the American president expressed his gratitude to the Russian government.
Even the most mindless Republican partisans should find this impossible to defend.
Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official in the Bush/Cheney administration, told Reuters Trump's comments were "grotesque." Burns, now a Harvard professor, added, "If he was joking, he should know better. If he wasn't, it's unprecedented. A president has never defended the expulsion of our diplomats."
The same article quoted a veteran U.S. diplomat saying the State Department has been "horrified and rattled" by Trump's remarks.
A Politico piece added:
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."
For those keeping score, when Russia disagreed with U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump sided with Putin. When Russia disagreed with the U.S. Congress, Trump sided with Putin. And when Russia moved against U.S. diplomats, Trump thanked Putin.
It's enough to make one wonder what Moscow has on the American president.