Tillerson Under Fire for Plans to Skip NATO Meeting, Travel to Russia
(Source: Voice of America News; issued March 21, 2017)
STATE DEPARTMENT --- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has come under fire for a decision not to attend next month's NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, and for an announcement that he will travel to Russia later in April.

At Tuesday's State Department briefing, acting spokesman Mark Toner fielded a number of questions from reporters about the NATO meeting. One reporter said he had been told that NATO had offered several alternative dates to Tillerson to make it possible for him to come, but these were rebuffed. Toner said the problem is a scheduling conflict.

"We are certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson. I can say that we have offered alternative dates the secretary could attend, and those are now being considered. It is important to remember though that this is not just a decision for NATO headquarters, but it also has to be reached, these dates, by consensus by all 28 allies," Toner said.

Another State Department official said Tillerson would be traveling to Italy in April for a meeting of the G-7, and then to Russia.

During the briefing, Toner said he had no formal announcement to make yet about the Russia trip, and could not say whether Tillerson would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rather than have his first meeting of the 28 NATO allies, Tillerson is set to attend President Donald Trump's meeting April 6-7 with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Reuters news agency reported.

Asked about what message Tillerson’s absence at the NATO meeting would send to close U.S. allies, Toner stressed that the United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO. He said Tom Shannon, acting deputy secretary of state for political affairs and former acting secretary, will represent the U.S. at the NATO meeting. Toner also noted that Tillerson is meeting with most, if not all, of the NATO foreign ministers Wednesday when the Coalition to Defeat Islamic State meets in Washington.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed NATO as "obsolete," though Vice President Mike Pence voiced staunch U.S. support for the alliance during a news conference in Brussels last month and Tillerson has expressed his support for NATO.

'Most unfortunate signal'

Speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said skipping the NATO meeting would send a "most unfortunate signal."

"I would blame it on schedulers. I do think that is part of the problem. He will have met with a lot of ministers in other venues, but given the discussion that's going on about NATO, I think it's an unfortunate scheduling problem," Albright said.

The ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, released a sharply worded statement after hearing reports of the travel decisions.

"If reporting is accurate, Donald Trump's administration is making a grave error that will shake the confidence of America's most important alliance and feed the concern that this administration is simply too cozy with Vladimir Putin. 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 added: "If that's the case, it's an absolute disgrace and I'll do whatever I can to stop the United States from going down this path. If it's not the case, Secretary Tillerson needs to explain why he arrived at this troubling decision. We need to see him before the Foreign Affairs Committee soon to answer these questions."

Russia trip

Other Democratic lawmakers also weighed in on the reports, saying they were stunned to hear Tillerson would skip the NATO meeting and then travel to Russia later the same month.

The news comes a day after testimony Monday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing where FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is investigating Russian attacks on the 2016 U.S. elections and possible links between Russia and members of Trump's campaign team.

During Tillerson's confirmation hearing, some senators, including Republican Senator John McCain, had expressed concern about Tillerson's close ties to Putin during Tillerson's time as the CEO of ExxonMobil. Putin awarded Tillerson the "Order of Friendship" in 2013.

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Tillerson Offers New Dates for NATO Meeting
(Source: Deutsche Wellle German Radio; issued March 21, 2017)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered to reschedule talks with his NATO allies after snubbing April's meeting. His decision, to prioritize a meeting with China, was described as "unprecedented."

The US State Department confirmed that Washington had proposed new dates for a NATO meeting, after Tillerson decided to skip the original talks and rebuffed efforts to reschedule them.

The US' most senior diplomat will be replaced by his deputy at the NATO's meeting on April 5 and 6 in Brussels, while Tillerson remains at home to attend talks between US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi JinPing. Tillerson is also due to visit Moscow in April.

The decision not to attend immediately led to new concerns about US President Donald Trump's loyalty to NATO, which Washington was quick to deny.

"The United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO. President Trump said this in his very first address to a joint session of Congress. He said our commitment to NATO is unwavering and it remains so," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.

Tillerson will meet European ministers

The State Department insisted Tillerson will meet most NATO foreign ministers at an anti-"Islamic State" (IS) conference later this week, adding that the decision was not unprecedented, and that former secretaries of state had missed the April meeting in 2003 and 1999.

The military alliance had offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend both it and the Xi talks, but the US State Department rebuffed the idea, a former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency on Monday.

Europe alarmed

The timing of the announcement has unnerved some European allies, particular in the former Soviet bloc, who are dealing with a more assertive Russia.

The snub came just a few days after Trump claimed on Twitter that Germany owes "vast sums of money to NATO and the United States," following his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House.

While NATO officials in Brussels on Tuesday played down the snub, former US diplomats expressed concern at the message Tillerson is sending.

"I think it is a mistake," Ivo Daalder, the ex-US ambassador to NATO told DW. "The idea that a secretary of state should skip a NATO ministerial (meeting) is remarkable, indeed it is almost unprecedented."

Another former ambassador to NATO, Harvard professor Nicholas Burns, told the Agence France-Presse news agency: "Of course Secretary Tillerson should be at the NATO meeting. We are the leader of NATO and should meet with allies before Russia."

Tillerson moves on Montenegro

Meanwhile, Tillerson has written to US Senate leaders urging them to ratify Montenegro as NATO's newest members, saying it is "strongly in the interests of the United States."

The Reuters news agency cited a letter dated March 7 arguing that the former Yugoslav state would support greater integration, security and stability among its neighbors.

Montenegro hopes to win the required approval of all 28 NATO allies in time to become a full member at a summit in May.

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