- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson emerged from a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday saying relations between Moscow and Washington were “at a low point,” marked by serious distrust in the wake of a chemical weapons attack by Kremlin ally Syria.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

In Washington, President Trump echoed the dim U.S. view of Russia during a news conference with the secretary general of NATO.

“Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Mr. Trump said. “Right now, the world is a mess.”

The blunt airing of differences was one of the more frosty diplomatic encounters in recent years between the nations, with Washington and Moscow unable to agree even on the facts of the deadly sarin gas attack on April 4 that killed more than 80 civilians in Syria.

The U.S. said Russia, which has been fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad for two years, was likely complicit in the atrocity.

“I would like to think that they didn’t know, but they certainly could have,” Mr. Trump said. “They were there. It’s disappointing no matter who does it.”

Mr. Putin accused the U.S. of framing Mr. Assad in the attack and has warned the Trump administration not to repeat any military actions such as the missile bombardment that the U.S. launched against Syrian forces last week in retaliation for the gas attack.

Deepening the Syria dispute, Russia vetoed a resolution at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday condemning the chemical weapons attack. It was the eighth time during the 6-year-old Syrian civil war that Russia has used its veto power to protect the government in Damascus.

The events have marked a dramatic turn from the hope that Mr. Trump had expressed upon taking office that he could work with Mr. Putin toward the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.

But Trump administration officials said the U.N. vote highlighted a positive budding relationship between Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. China abstained from the U.N. vote after Mr. Trump spoke on the phone with Mr. Xi in what a senior administration official described as a warm conversation.

“I think it’s wonderful that they abstained,” Mr. Trump said. “Very few people thought that was going to happen. We were honored by the vote.”

Mr. Trump hosted Mr. Xi and his wife last week at the president’s resort at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, seeking primarily the Chinese leader’s help in pressuring North Korea to dial back its nuclear weapons program. White House officials said Mr. Trump’s developing bond with Mr. Xi was paying immediate diplomatic dividends by isolating Russia.

“It was the relationship that was solidified at Mar-a-Lago that helped make that possible,” the senior administration official said of the Chinese vote at the United Nations.

Amid heightened concern that North Korea could soon launch another ballistic missile or nuclear test, the U.S. has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing this week sent a flotilla of North Korean freighters loaded with coal, the country’s biggest export to China, back to their home ports, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, China has placed massive orders for the steel-making commodity from U.S. producers.

The Dandong Chengtai trading company said it had 600,000 tons of North Korean coal sitting at various ports and that 2 million tons were stranded at Chinese ports to be sent back to North Korea, Reuters said.

At the same time China was taking these actions favorable to U.S. interests, Mr. Trump announced Wednesday that he would not label China as a currency manipulator in a report due this week.

Backing away from a campaign pledge, Mr. Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he changed his mind because he now thinks China hasn’t manipulated its currency recently and because forcing the issue might jeopardize his efforts to obtain help from Beijing on confronting the threat of North Korea.

“They’re not currency manipulators,” Mr. Trump said.

The decision represents one of the sharpest reversals in the first three months of Mr. Trump’s presidency. He repeatedly told voters during the campaign that China was “killing us” on trade, partly because of currency manipulation.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that “there was no specific linkage that I’m aware of” between the decision on currency manipulation and China’s help on North Korea and at the United Nations.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, blasted Mr. Trump for his reversal on currency manipulation.

“China steals our intellectual property, doesn’t let American companies compete in China and has manipulated their currency, causing the loss of millions of jobs,” Mr. Schumer said. “When the president fails to label them a currency manipulator, he gives them a green light to steal our jobs and wealth time and time again.”

On the Syria crisis, a rare bright spot emerged Wednesday when Mr. Lavrov told reporters that Mr. Putin was willing to re-establish the U.S.-Russia deconfliction line.

“We are willing to put it back into force,” but it required that Washington reaffirm that its Syria strategy is focused on defeating the Islamic State and not on destabilizing the regime of Mr. Assad, Mr. Lavrov said.

The announcement was made after Mr. Tillerson’s two-hour meeting with Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Putin as part of the bilateral security summit in Moscow.

Mr. Trump asserted that the talks in Moscow went “maybe better than anticipated.”

Asked whether his views of Mr. Putin have changed, Mr. Trump replied, “I would love to be able to get along with everybody. Russia is a strong country. I don’t know Putin.”

The escalating tensions with Russia underscored the importance of Mr. Trump’s meeting at the White House with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

After raising questions about NATO’s value during the campaign, Mr. Trump said Wednesday that he is “100 percent” committed to the security alliance and that it is no longer obsolete.

“They made a change, and now they do fight terrorism,” Mr. Trump said of NATO. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Stoltenberg also discussed pressing NATO members to pay more of their “fair burden” for the alliance — 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product. Only six nations in the 28-member alliance have reached that goal, which Mr. Trump made a campaign issue.

Carlo Muñoz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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