Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to skip NATO summit, travel to Russia in April

Tillerson's decision was met with sharp criticism by Democrats.

ByABC News
March 21, 2017, 2:03 AM

— -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will skip a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April and later in the month travel to Russia for meetings and to a G7 summit in Italy, the U.S. State Dept. has confirmed.

Reuters was first to report that Tillerson will not attend the NATO meeting. He will instead be at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort for meetings with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the summit, Reuters said.

A State Dept. spokesperson said in a statement that acting deputy secretary Tom Shannon will attend the NATO meeting in Tillerson's place. The State Dept. also said that Tillerson is scheduled to meet several NATO ministers at a gathering of the Global Counter ISIS Coalition this Wednesday.

"After these consultations and meetings, in April [Tillerson] will travel to a meeting of the G7 in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia," the statement adds.

The announcement comes on the heels of fresh criticism of NATO from the Trump administration with the president making the dubious claim that Germany "owes vast sums of money to NATO."

Trump rattled American allies in Europe by calling NATO "obsolete" and questioning during his 2016 presidential campaign whether or not the U.S. would come to the aid of NATO members in the event of an attack by Russia.

NATO's mutual defense clause -- the cornerstone of the 60-year-old alliance -- calls for a response by all members of the pact in the event of an attack on one member country.

Trump said during the campaign that he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations "have fulfilled their obligations to us."

Democrats were quick to jump on Monday's news.

“If reporting is accurate, Donald Trump's Administration is making a grave error that will shake the confidence of America's most important alliance and feed the concern that this administration simply too cozy with Vladimir Putin," Rep. Elliott Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

"I cannot fathom why the Administration would pursue this course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that draws our country away from western democracy's most important institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the autocratic regime in the Kremlin."

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said on "The Rachel Maddow Show": "I have to hope that that story is not true. We've already sent a terrible message to NATO. The only message frankly that has gotten through from this administration to NATO is not that we support you, not that we value you or thank our NATO allies for coming to our assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq where NATO soldiers have stood by, fought by and died with our own troops, but rather pay up. That's the only message we've delivered."

ABC News' Chad Murray contributed to this report.

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