Tillerson laments sour ties with Russia, but holds out hope

In this July 21, 2017 file photo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the State Department in Washington. Tillerson says neither he nor President Donald Trump is "very happy" about new sanctions on Russia that Congress has voted to put in place. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON– The top American diplomat put the onus on Russia 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 Tillerson said he’d meet with his Russian counterpart within days.

In a wide-ranging assessment of his first six months in office, Tillerson on Tuesday also:

– 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.

– Argued that Iran’s military must leave Syria for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war.

– Named retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as special representative to try to resolve the Persian Gulf diplomatic crisis over Qatar.

But on Russia, Tillerson strained hardest to point to progress.

He was unable to show that the U.S. has fulfilled President Donald Trump’s objective of 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. U.S. intelligence agencies have formally accused Moscow of meddling in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump.

“The situation is bad, but believe me — it can get worse,” Tillerson said, recounting his message to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in March. “And it just did.”

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 hasn’t come to pass. Though ostensibly in retaliation for a similar U.S. move last year under President Barack Obama, the Russian action came just after Congress voted to slap Russia with more economic sanctions, and to include new requirements making it far harder for Trump to ease the penalties.

“Neither the president nor I are very happy about that,” Tillerson said of the sanctions bill. The diplomat had urged lawmakers not to proceed. “We were clear that we didn’t think that was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that’s the decision they made.”

Trump plans to sign the bill nevertheless, another potent reminder of the political baggage that has beset his efforts to mend ties to Russia. If Trump were to veto the bill, Congress would almost surely override his veto. At a time when the FBI and congressional committees are investigating possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia, a veto override would make it look like lawmakers were rejecting a Trump effort to protect Moscow from U.S. punishment.

Though the White House said the bill was still being reviewed, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will sign it.