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."
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.