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Secretary of State Tillerson will visit Russia but skip NATO meeting

Secretary of State Tillerson will visit Russia but skip NATO meeting
President Trump, left listens with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, not pictured, during a meeting at the White House on Monday. (Associated Press)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's decision to skip a NATO meeting in Europe next month and later travel to Russia has raised fresh questions about the Trump administration's foreign policy priorities.

State Department officials said Tuesday that Tillerson will not attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on April 5-6 so that he could take part in President Trump's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 6-7.

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Partly to help make diplomatic preparations for Xi's first meeting with Trump, Tillerson met the Chinese leader in Beijing last week on the final leg of a trip that also took him to Seoul and Tokyo.

Tillerson's media advisor R.C. Hammond said on Twitter that Tillerson would see most of the NATO foreign ministers in Washington this week at an unrelated diplomatic conference that will focus on efforts to defeat Islamic State.

Hammond said Tillerson also would attend a ministerial meeting of the Group of 7 bloc of industrialized democracies in Italy on April 10-11 en route to Moscow. The G-7 includes some NATO allies as well as Japan.

Still, critics argued that Tillerson shouldn't skip the Brussels meeting because it will lay the foundation for a NATO leaders summit in late April that Trump has said he would attend.

The message, according to former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, is "China and Russia are more important to us than our most important democratic allies, with whom we have stood shoulder to shoulder since 1949," when the NATO treaty was signed.

"It is quite remarkable and unprecedented," said Daalder, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said U.S. and NATO officials had exchanged potential alternative dates for the Brussels meeting but could not find another time when all the ministers could attend.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Tillerson's decision to skip the NATO meeting a "grave error" that will "shake the confidence of America's most important alliance.

"I cannot fathom why the Administration would pursue this course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that draws our country away from Western democracy's most important institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the autocratic regime in the Kremlin," Engel said in a statement.

Toner said missing the NATO ministerial meeting "absolutely" did not signal diminished regard for the alliance, and that Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, would represent the United States at the meeting.

"We are 100% committed to NATO," he said Tuesday.

The White House has offered conflicting signals about its support for NATO and its overtures to Moscow.

Trump called NATO "obsolete" before he took office but he has since embraced the 28-member military alliance. He reiterated "strong support" for NATO during a news conference Friday with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but again demanded that Germany and other member states boost their defense budgets.

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Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for warmer relations with Moscow before he took office. He has barely mentioned the Russian leader since then, however, and there are no signs of enhanced diplomatic or military cooperation with Moscow.

Doing so now may be politically risky.

The FBI director, James B. Comey, told the House Intelligence Committee on Monday that the bureau is investigating whether Trump's aides colluded with Russian authorities during the 2016 campaign, a potential crime. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Putin approved meddling in the race partly in an effort to help Trump.

During the hearing, Democrats outlined a web of circumstantial links between Russian authorities and members of Trump's current and former inner circle. Tillerson was among those they criticized.

The former chief executive of ExxonMobil has acknowledged a 17-year friendship with Putin, forged over business deals between the energy giant and Russia. Putin awarded the Texas oilman Russia's Order of Friendship medal in 2012, before U.S. relations with Moscow went into a tailspin.

State Department officials declined to say if Tillerson would meet Putin on his visit to Moscow.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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