AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Diplomacy in the Trump era is increasingly under question. Though U.S. diplomats have been quietly sending messages to North Korea, the president tweeted today that military solutions are now fully in place. Locked and loaded were his words. Just yesterday, he actually thanked President Vladimir Putin for demanding the expulsions of U.S. diplomats from Russia. Though today, based on a White House official's comments, he was asked if that comment was sarcastic.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Absolutely. I think you know that. I think you knew that.
CORNISH: But, the president added, we have reduced payroll very substantially. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has more.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Morale at the State Department was already in the dumps before this comment from President Trump. He was asked about Putin's demand that the U.S. downsize its embassies and consulates in Russia, cutting 755 positions.
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TRUMP: I want to thank him 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.
KELEMEN: Retired U.S. diplomat and arms control expert Tom Countryman called it an insult to American diplomats and to locally hired Russians who could actually lose their jobs.
TOM COUNTRYMAN: It was maybe not the most important outrageous statement that the president has made but one of the most outrageous. And I think it has increased the concern within the Department of State about the complete lack of respect that the White House has for the department and their lack of appreciation for what diplomacy is.
KELEMEN: Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan held a town hall to try to ease some of those concerns. He brushed off reports of a hollowed-out State Department. And when I asked him about Russia's move against the U.S. embassy and consulate, Sullivan called it a difficult challenge.
JOHN SULLIVAN: It is a complex logistical matter moving people out and to reach the limit that's imposed by the Russian government.
KELEMEN: Sullivan is vowing some sort of retaliation by September 1, which is the deadline for the U.S. to draw down its diplomatic presence in Russia. Though Trump talked of cost savings, retired Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, who ran the Foreign Service Institute, says it actually costs a lot to bring home diplomats who spend a year in language and security training.
NANCY MCELDOWNEY: Things from personal safety and crisis management to operating in an environment with constant surveillance from Russian intelligence services. So the preparation we do for our people is both extensive and frankly expensive.
KELEMEN: And the Americans won't be off the payroll. In fact they will need temporary housing and new assignments. McEldowney, now with Georgetown University, says President Trump may have been joking about the cost savings, but she doesn't see the humor in it. And she's also worried about a proposed 30 percent budget cut to the State Department.
MCELDOWNEY: That's like cutting the legs off of our diplomacy at a time of enormous global tumult, which is precisely when we need diplomats the most.
KELEMEN: President Trump's talk of fire and fury when it comes to North Korea is also alarming longtime diplomats like Countryman, the former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.
COUNTRYMAN: It is distressing to hear our president use the same kind of gangster rhetoric that Kim Jong Un uses or in fact that the leader of any banana republic uses.
KELEMEN: Asked about reports that the State Department has been using a back channel to send messages directly to North Korea, Countryman says that has been useful in the past, and it may be one way to make sure North Korea doesn't just rely on the president's tweets or off-the-cuff statements to make its decisions. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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