WASHINGTON — Laying bare deep and dangerous divisions on Syria and other issues, President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia "may be at an all-time low." His top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment from the other side of the globe after meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all," Trump said flatly during a White House news conference. It was stark evidence that the president is moving ever further from his campaign promises to establish better ties with Moscow.
Trump seems to rule out deeper US intervention in Syria
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the U.S. election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any such expectations have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and ongoing U.S. investigations into Russia's alleged interference in America's U.S. presidential election.
"It'd be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia," Trump said. But he clearly wasn't counting on it.
"That could happen, and it may not happen," he said. "It may be just the opposite."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens, right, to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, back to a camera, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Tillerson's Moscow talks hinge on new US leverage over Syria.Photo Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Not long before Trump spoke in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a similar tone after an almost two-hour meeting with Putin, saying the two countries had reached a "low point" in relations.
The president, who last week ordered airstrikes on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, was asked if Syria could have launched the attack without Russia's knowledge. Trump said it was "certainly possible" though "probably unlikely."
More than 80 people were killed in what the U.S. has described as a nerve gas attack that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces undoubtedly carried out. Russia says rebels were responsible for whatever chemical agent was used, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.
Not long before Trump spoke, Russia vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution that would have condemned the chemical weapons attack and demanded a speedy investigation.
Russia vetoes UN resolution to condemn Syria chemical attack
The dim view of U.S.-Russian ties from both Trump and Tillerson reflected the former Cold War foes' inability to forge better relations, as Trump until recently has advocated.
Allegations of collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates also have weakened Trump's ability to make concessions to Russia in any agreement, lest he be accused of rewarding bad behavior. Russia wants the U.S. to eliminate sanctions on Moscow related to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Until the chemical attack, the Trump administration had sought to step back from the U.S. position that Assad should leave power. But Tillerson repeated the administration's new belief that "the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."
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