Russia investigation a challenge for US-Moscow relations, Tillerson says
Posted January 5, 2018 12:59 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 4:59 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the ongoing investigation into alleged cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia has had no impact on his work with overseas counterparts.
"It has had no impact," Tillerson said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Elise Labott Friday. "I'll say that it's had none."
That contradicts President Donald Trump, who told The New York Times last month that the investigation "makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position."
Tillerson elaborated: "It never comes up in our conversations or in my bilats or my dialogues with world leaders elsewhere."
"The domestic issues around the Russia involvement in our elections are not part of our dialogue elsewhere," he said. "I think the rest of the world recognizes it is a domestic issue, it's an important one."
Tillerson discussed the challenges of the US relationship with Russia, now intractably complicated by ongoing investigations by the special counsel Robert Mueller and by multiple congressional committees. Trump has argued for improved relations with Russia in places like Syria, but Moscow's actions in Ukraine along with its interference in the US election have pushed that goal out of reach.
"It has been a difficult year with Russia," Tillerson said. "I've said clearly, the president stated clearly, our two nations should have a more productive relationship. Today it's very strained for all reasons that I think the American people well understand."
Despite that, Tillerson said, "we have maintained a constant engagement with Russia, very active engagement." The two sides focus on areas where they can and do cooperate -- Syria and the fight against ISIS, creating stability in Eastern Europe, and treaty talks on arms control.
He added that he's made plain to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov what Russia must to do improve relations between the US and Russia.
"We have made it clear that the keystone is really Ukraine," Tillerson said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support for militias in eastern Ukraine.
What about 2018?
When he does talk to the Russians, Tillerson said he raises the issue of Moscow's interference in the 2016 election campaign, stressing that it brings them no benefits.
"We talk about it and we have said to them look it's a problem." Asked if he thinks they will meddle again in November's midterm elections, the top US diplomat said there was no evidence of that yet.
"I hope they don't," he said. "But we do know that Russia has involved themselves in other elections," referring to voting in European countries.
When he talks to Russians, Tillerson said he tells them, "that I don't understand why you do this. I don't understand what you think you're getting for this, because it's not evident to me as to how's this benefiting you."
Instead, Tillerson argued, "it damages Russia because we're not making progress and they're not making progress with others."