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Rex Tillerson Meets Russian Counterpart in First Trip as Top U.S. Diplomat
By the time Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson decided that he wanted to join his counterparts at an important global gathering in Bonn – his first trip overseas as America's top diplomat – all the good hotel rooms in this small German city had been taken.
So Mr. Tillerson and his entourage of temporary State Department helpers took rooms at a rambling health clinic and spa next to a public bathhouse in the picturesque town of Bad Neuenahr, more than 20 miles outside of the city – a bit like holing up in Beltsville, Md., for a conference in Washington, D.C.
The remoteness of the location fit with the growing distance between the Trump administration and its European counterparts on such issues as immigration, refugees, defense and trade. Indeed, so much uncertainty has crept into what had been close relations that Mr. Tillerson largely dispensed with the usual gushing and grinning news conferences with his counterparts on Thursday at the gathering of foreign ministers from countries in the Group of 20. The meeting was called to lay the groundwork for the summit meeting of leaders of G-20 countries in Hamburg in July.
With the Russians, though, Mr. Tillerson repeated what has become an increasingly hard line in the administration against the kind of warming ties that President Trump presaged in his campaign. In brief remarks after meeting the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, Mr. Tillerson said that Russia needed to honor its commitments to "de-escalate the violence in Ukraine."
In a separate statement with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea, Mr. Tillerson also denounced North Korea's latest ballistic missile test and promised that the United States would defend its allies with the "full range of its nuclear and conventional defense capabilities."
In his own remarks, Mr. Lavrov emphasized that Russia and the United States could cooperate in some areas, and said that while the issue of sanctions was not discussed, those pushing sanctions should weigh "how much the artificial desire to politicize this subject meets the interests of the countries concerned."
But such conventional statements could not overshadow the awkwardness of Mr. Tillerson's first foreign foray in his new job. Britain's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, for instance, breezed into his meeting with Mr. Tillerson almost half an hour late, his blond hair flying as he dashed out of his motorcade of black Mercedes sedans, past old women in wheelchairs and into an entrance with a sign that read, Steigenberger Sanatorium, Private Clinic.
At the beginning of their meeting, a small group of reporters was ushered in to take photos of Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Johnson sitting across from each other. One reporter shouted a question to Mr. Tillerson asking what message he was sending to his colleagues about President Trump's executive order on travel and refugees.
Mr. Tillerson remained mum.
"Good try," Mr. Johnson said to fill the silence, as others in the room nervously chuckled.
The reporters were brought back into the room at the end of the meeting, and this time a shouted question – How would the turmoil in Washington affect the trans-Atlantic alliance? – was directed at the normally voluble Mr. Johnson. This time even he was silent.
As the reporters were leaving, however, Mr. Johnson was heard to ask: "Are we still being recorded?"
To which Mr. Tillerson, whose two-week tenure has not included a single news conference, press availability or routine briefing, replied, "They never give up."
Later, during his meeting with Mr. Lavrov, – the first face-to-face high-level encounter between Russian and Trump administration officials – the news media pool was ushered into a small room to witness Mr. Lavrov give his usual flowery introduction. "I would like to congratulate you once again," Mr. Lavrov said to Mr. Tillerson.
Invariably in such meetings when one side gives introductory remarks, the other side does as well. But as soon as Mr. Lavrov was finished, State Department press aides asked reporters – including a bewildered-looking Russian news crew – to leave.
While the reporters were herded out, Mr. Tillerson said: "Thank you, Mr. Lavrov, it's a pleasure to see you." And then he stopped. Just as the reporters reached the door, Mr. Lavrov was heard to ask Mr. Tillerson, "Why did they shush them out?"
After the meeting, Mr. Tillerson gave his statement calling on Russia to honor its commitments to Ukraine, but took no questions.
The Obama administration often used its traveling press corps as a diplomatic weapon, telling even autocratic counterparts that news conferences were an expected part of any trip and therefore even leaders who almost never spoke to reporters felt obliged to answer a few questions. In China in 2013, Ethiopia in 2015 and Cuba in 2016, President Barack Obama used news conferences to push a level of openness considered unusual in those countries.
But that weapon only works if news conferences are the rule in overseas engagements. So far, the Trump administration shows few signs that it intends to employ a similar cudgel.
The State Department has customarily sent out alerts and readouts of even the smallest engagement between the secretary of state and their counterparts to tout the hard work of diplomacy and to ensure that its own description of those meetings was included in stories around the world. Now, many of Mr. Tillerson's calls and meetings go unremarked upon by the United States government.
Mr. Tillerson called India's minister for external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, while he flew to Germany on Wednesday, but the only public acknowledgment of the call was made by the Indians, who said the two "emphasized that close and strong relations between India and the U.S. were not only in mutual interest but also had regional and global significance."
Other phone calls that Mr. Tillerson has made in recent weeks, including one to King Salman of Saudi Arabia and another to Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry of Egypt, were similarly disclosed only by the foreign counterparts.
[Source: By Gardiner Harris, The New York Times, Bonn, 16Feb17]
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