Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that he’s warned Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the relationship between the U.S. and Moscow is bad — but it can get worse.
“I told President Putin when I saw him in the Kremlin in March and I’ve told Foreign Minister Lavrov repeatedly, ‘The situation’s bad, but believe me, it can get worse’ — and it just did,” Tillerson told reporters.
Tillerson addressed the press with a rare appearance at Tuesday’s State Department briefing, where he talked about his first six months as secretary of state and answered a few questions.
He said he and President Donald Trump are unhappy with Congress’ vote to sanction Russia, but “all indications are” that Trump “will sign that bill, and then we’ll just work with it.”
The bill, which was approved overwhelmingly in both chambers, allows Congress to block any attempt to ease or end penalties against the Kremlin and imposes new sanctions in response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Tillerson conceded that the vote was representative of the American people’s view “because it was made by their representatives in the Congress.” But he also suggested that Americans support the Trump administration’s overtures to establish a warmer relationship with Russia.
“I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship,” Tillerson said. “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.”
Since Trump took office, Tillerson said, the administration has been “very clear” with Russia that “we want to work with you, but you are going to have to take some steps to address some of these concerns yourself.”
Putin has denied Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, despite the intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin meddled to boost Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. And Putin’s government responded Sunday to Obama-era actions against Moscow, which included seizure of two Russian compounds in the U.S. and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, by ordering a 755-person reduction in U.S. diplomatic staff.
“I think from his perspective and how he looks in the eyes of his own people, he felt he had to do something,” Tillerson said of the delayed response. “Does it make our life more difficult? Of course it makes our life more difficult.”
He added that he will meet with Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, “on the margins of the meetings in Manila” this weekend, where he will attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum. The two, he said, have already spoken since Sunday’s actions.
“I would say our conversation following the actions has been professional. There’s been no belligerence,” Tillerson said. “Foreign Minister Lavrov and I understand our roles. We understand our responsibilities, and I think he’s as committed as I am to trying to find ways that we can bring this relationship back close to one another.”