Tillerson still hopeful amid rows with Russia
America’s diplomat put the onus on Russia Tuesday to take steps to repair flagging relations with the United States, even as he conceded that congressional sanctions would pose a new obstacle. Holding out hope for warmer ties, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said he’d meet with his Russian counterpart within days.
In a wide-ranging assessment of his first six months in office and the first lengthy press briefing of his tenure, the former ExxonMobil oil executive:
● revealed the U.S. is looking at options to entice Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to leave power peacefully.
● insisted the U.S. doesn’t blame China for North Korea’s nuclear behavior despite the American pressure on Beijing. He said the U.S. is open to talks with Pyongyang and is not seeking to overthrow the Kim Jong-un regime.
● argued that Iran’s military must leave Syria if the U.S. is to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war.
● pushed back against persistent whispers in Washington that he is frustrated in his job, while admitting he and President Trump have differences in some policy areas, including the Iran nuclear deal.
“It is a very open relationship, and it is one in which I feel quite comfortable telling [Mr. Trump] my views,” Mr. Tillerson said, adding he talks to the president nearly every day. “We have differences, but I think if we’re not having those differences, I’m not sure that I am serving him. I would tell you the relationship between myself and the president is good — that’s how I view it anyway.”
It was on Russia where Mr. Tillerson strained hardest to point to progress since taking office.
There is little sign that the U.S. has fulfilled Mr. Trump’s hopes for a new, more cooperative relationship between the former Cold War foes, noting only modest efforts in Syria as a sign the nations share some common goals. While he said frustrated Americans want the U.S. to get along with the nuclear-armed power, he did not address the deep suspicions at home about the president’s intentions.
“The situation is bad, but believe me, it can get worse,” Mr. Tillerson said, recounting his message to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in March. “And it just did.”
Mr. Putin this week ordered the U.S. to dramatically cut its diplomatic presence in Russia, solidifying the conclusion that a Trump-driven detente with Moscow isn’t in the cards. The Russian action came just after Congress voted to slap Moscow with more economic sanctions, and included new requirements making it far harder for Mr. Trump to ease the penalties on his own.
“Neither the president nor I are very happy about that,” Mr. Tillerson said of the sanctions bill. “We were clear that we didn’t think that was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that’s the decision they made.”
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said the onus is on Russia to repair relations with the United States, while admitting new sanctions may harm such hopes.