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Trump Tasked Tillerson With Fixing U.S.-Russia Relations

Despite the Russia scandals plaguing the White House, Russian ‘Order of Friendship’ winner given a mission.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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President Donald Trump assigned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a daunting task: Rebuild U.S.-Russia relations.

During a visit to New Zealand Tuesday, Tillerson told reporters Trump asked him to repair relations with Moscow, even as the White House roils from multiple scandals and investigations into his presidential campaign’s Russia ties. Trump won’t get any respite this week, either: Ousted FBI director James Comey will testify before Congress Thursday, including possibly discussing reported attempts by Trump to get him to quash the probe.

“The President asked me to begin a re-engagement process with Russia to see if we can first stabilize that relationship so it does not deteriorate further,” Tillerson said, and then “begin to rebuild some level of trust” with Moscow. Tillerson spoke in Wellington, New Zealand during a joint press conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English.

Tillerson said Trump told him not to let the public firestorm or the FBI and Congressional investigations into his ties to Russia impede the job in any way.

“The President has been clear to me do not let what’s happening over here in the political realm prevent you from the work you need to do on this relationship,” Tillerson said, apparently referring to the ongoing counterintelligence investigation. “He’s been quite clear with me to proceed at whatever pace and in the areas that I think we might make progress.”

U.S. allies are quietly bristling over Trump’s visit to Brussels last week to meet with all NATO leaders for the first time. Trump only mentioned Russia once before leaders of the 29-nation alliance in a public speech in which he rapped allies for not spending enough on defense and refused to explicitly endorse NATO’s bedrock collective defense clause. It left Trump’s team, including Vice President Mike Pence, scrambling to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to NATO in Trump’s stead.

Tillerson’s stopover in New Zealand came after a visit to Australia with Secretary of Defense James Mattis in which both tried to rebut growing fears the the administration’s “America First” approach is turning the country away from its international commitments. In a matter of months, Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and global Paris climate change pact, a landmark international accord signed by all but two countries. (New Zealanders didn’t exactly greet Tillerson with a lot of warmth after that decision).

“I don’t think anyone should interpret that the U.S. has somehow stepped away from these issues or is seeking to isolate itself,” said Tillerson Tuesday. “I think you can expect, in fact, to see an elevated level of engagement to that that you saw in the past eight years,” he added.

Photo credit: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer