Secretary of State Rex Tillerson surprised reporters at the State Department Tuesday by joining their daily briefing for the first time, laying out his vision for U.S. foreign policy for North Korea, Venezuela, China, the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, among other hot spots.
Asked about U.S. relations with Russia following President Vladimir Putin's order to cut back sharply on the number of American diplomats in Moscow, Tillerson said he has repeatedly warned Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that ties between their two countries are bad, but could get even worse, and they just did.
Tillerson said the additional sanctions against Russia that the U.S. Congress passed by an overwhelming margin last week are not “helpful,” from his point of view.
“Now the action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place, and the way they did, neither the president nor I were very happy about that,” Tillerson said. “We were clear that we didn't think it was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that's the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way.”
'We'll work with it'
The top U.S. diplomat said he thinks President Donald Trump “accepts” the overwhelming vote by Congress, and will sign the bill into law. “And then we'll just work with it,” Tillerson added.
Vice President Mike Pence sounded a distinctly different note about the sanctions bill Tuesday, when he was in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, seeking to reassure Russia's neighbors, who are worried about Moscow's expansionist policies.
Pence said Trump would sign the sanctions into law “very soon,” and that states in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia should see that as a further of American commitment to their independence and sovereignty.
“The United States prefers a constructive relationship with Russia based on mutual cooperation and common interest,” Pence said. “But the president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia: A better relationship — the lifting of sanctions — will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused the sanctions to be imposed in the first place, and not before.”
No date for bill signing yet
At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump would sign the sanctions bill into law, but she could not say when that would happen.
“As with any very particularly complex piece of legislation like this is, there's a legal review” taking place beforehand, she said.
Several foreign-policy experts have called on the president to sign the sanctions into law quickly, because a tougher approach to Moscow will benefit Ukraine, Georgia and other countries that feel threatened by Russian aggression.
Former Ambassador John Herbst, now with the Atlantic Council, gave his view: “I believe that the steps that Congress has just taken are very positive for our policy on Ukraine. Because it's clear that the price of Kremlin aggression is going up. And if the price gets too high, Moscow will have to reverse its policy in Donbass,” where pro-Moscow activists opposed to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv are active.
“And if [Moscow] reverses its policy on Donbass, that will probably have a positive impact in medium term and long term on its policy in Georgia,” Herbst added.
On Capitol Hill, U.S. senators from both major political parties called on Trump to sign the sanctions bill into law without further delay. The president has until Aug. 7 to sign the bill. If he fails to do so — a situation known as a “pocket veto” — Congress could vote to override his inaction.