President Donald Trump on Wednesday said U.S. relations with Russia could have recently hit an “all-time low” as the two world powers clash over a sarin gas attack in Syria.
The Trump administration, citing U.S. intelligence data, contends the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out the chemical strike, which killed dozens and left children and babies dead. It was the latter images that moved Trump to order the missile strike, he said last week.
The president said it “would be better” for NATO and the United States to “get along with Russia,” noting that is not happening right now.
That is when he signaled regression on his campaign-trail pledge to bring about warmer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government, declaring the countries’ relationship possibly at “an all-time low.”
Trump called Russia a “strong country,” and the United States as a “very, very strong country.” But he is not as upbeat about prospects for the kind of relations he promised as a candidate, leaving his assessment at: “We’re going to see…”
The president’s comments came shortly after his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow that a “low-level of trust” exists between the two countries.
Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged alliance members in Europe are concerned about the potential of Russian aggression. Putin sent his forces into and took the Crimea region of Ukraine, and is backing separatist forces in other parts of eastern Ukraine.
“We have to find ways to talk to Russia … and avoid a new Cold War and arms race,” the NATO boss said. “Russia is not going away.”
“I strongly believe the only way to deter Russia is to be strong” as an alliance, he said. But NATO leaders also must continue to “engage” senior Russian officials, he added.
The joint press conference featured another policy reversal: President Trump broke with candidate Trump when he declared NATO “no longer obsolete.” He took credit for the change, saying the alliance changed itself to better fight terrorism after he “complained” that it did not do so sufficiently.
Standing beside NATO’s secretary general, Trump said the duo agrees that some alliance members pay too little into NATO coffers. But he did not threaten to lessen America’s contribution or any other moves if partners do not begin paying 2 percent of their respective GDPs, as NATO’s charter calls for.
Trump and NATO’s secretary general shared a chuckle when the U.S. president told reporters he “asked about” whether members who have failed to contribute 2 percent of their GDP to the alliance will pay back those funds.
“We’ll be talking about that,” Trump quipped with a wide smile as he looked over at Stoltenberg. The NATO leader smiled back politely.