Reuters reported on Tuesday, based on information from “four current and former U.S. officials,” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a meeting with NATO foreign ministers on April 5th and 6th so he can remain in Washington for the scheduled visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tillerson will then visit Russia later in April, according to the itinerary described by these sources.
This is being widely reported as “Tillerson skips NATO meeting to visit Moscow,” although according to Reuters, he is missing the NATO meeting so he can talk to China’s president in Washington. The Russia trip would occur later in the month.
In fact, Reuters strives to make that connection in the next two paragraphs, after reporting that the NATO conference comes at the beginning of April, while the prospective Russia trip is at the end of the month:
Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security, two former U.S. officials said.
Trump has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tillerson worked with Russia’s government for years as a top executive at Exxon Mobil Corp, and has questioned the wisdom of sanctions against Russia that he said could harm U.S. businesses.
The article also includes a quote from Eliot Engel, senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasting the Trump administration for “making a grave error that will shake the confidence of America’s most important alliance and feed the concern that this Administration simply too cozy with Vladimir Putin.”
For good measure, an inexplicably anonymous “former U.S. official” is quoted worrying about “this narrative that somehow the Trump administration is playing footsie with Russia.”
Reuters informs us that Tillerson will meet on Wednesday with foreign ministers from all but one of those NATO countries on Wednesday, at a conference to discuss defeating ISIS. The only NATO ally that won’t enjoy a meeting with Tillerson during the next two weeks is Croatia.
The United States will not be without representation at the NATO meeting, as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon is set to appear in Tillerson’s place. Shannon is currently the second highest-ranking diplomat at the State Department.
More anonymous former officials are quoted by Reuters claiming that NATO offered to reschedule its meeting so Tillerson could attend, but the State Department “rebuffed the idea.” However, in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Trump administration offered replacement dates to NATO for a meeting between Tillerson and the foreign ministers.
NBC News notes that Russian Foreign Minister spokeswoman Maria Zakharova refused to confirm or deny that a Tillerson visit to Moscow was in the works, but she expressed surprise at “the constant leaks of sensitive information from Washington.”
The Washington Post offers an alternate theory that Tillerson will be sent to Moscow to “dispel the impression” that he has little influence over foreign policy in the Trump administration.