US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spoken out regarding a tough new sanctions bill currently on Donald Trump’s desk.
The secretary answered questions regarding the sanctions during a nearly one hour press conference on Tuesday.
Congress sent legislation to the president last week which locks in sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, requiring the consent of Congress for removal. The bill was passed by an overwhelming veto-proof margin in both houses.
During his remarks, Tillerson emphasized that he thought the American public supported better relations with Russia:
I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship. I don’t think the American people want us to have a bad relationship with a huge nuclear power. But I think they are frustrated, and I think a lot of this reflects the frustration that we’ve not seen the kind of improvement in the relationship with Russia that all of us would like to see.
Following the latest move by the US congress, Moscow announced that 755 US diplomatic personnel would have to leave their positions in Russia. (The US presently maintains vastly more diplomatic staff in Russia than vice versa.) The Russians also cut off access to a vacation home and a warehouse owned by the US embassy.
According to the Kremlin, it was a countermove to President Obama’s seizure of Russian diplomatic property last December – not a reaction to the new sanctions bill. Secretary Tillerson expressed understanding for Vladimir Putin’s position:
I think it’s important to recognize that any leader of any country has their whole population watching them as well, and President Putin has his population of Russia watching him. And so I think the fact that they felt the need to take symmetrical action – and that’s the way they view it – is that they were delayed in taking this action, and I think President Putin has said that. He didn’t react when the two dachas were taken away in December. He didn’t react when 35 diplomats were sent home. He waited. And now this action came on top of that, and I think from his perspective and how he looks in the eyes of his own people, he felt he had to do something.
On the issue of the new sanctions bill itself, Tillerson made clear that both he and President Trump see the bill as counterproductive. He also said that although the Trump cannot stop the new sanctions, the administration will not allow them to obstruct continued efforts to build cooperation with Russia:
The action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the President nor I are very happy about that. We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts. But that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the President accepts that, and all indications are he will sign that, that bill. And then we’ll just work with it, and that’s kind of my view is we’ll work with it. We got it. We can’t let it take us off track of trying to restore the relationship.
Mr. Tillerson also left no doubt that the country’s head-of-state was in charge of setting foreign policy, and indicated that anyone in the state department unable to carry out the president’s policies was welcome to seek other employment:
The policy that we are leading is dictated by the President of the United States, who was selected by the American people. So we are working on behalf of the American people who selected this President to carry out his foreign policies…
Have I encountered some people on the way that didn’t want to do that, couldn’t do that? Yes. And we have given them permission to go do something else.
Tillerson gave no indication during the press conference that he was close to resigning, as mainstream media had been speculating for several days.
The secretary of state’s remarks on Russia stand in stark contrast not only to the view expressed of congress, but also to Vice President Mike Pence, who is touring eastern european states reassuring them of US support in the face of a supposed threat posed by Russia.
The foreign policy schizophrenia in Washington looks unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.