Yesterday, just hours after James Comey's hearing on Russian interference in the US election (which provided zero proof, but countless innuendo and extrapolations), we reported that Rex Tillerson planned to skip the April 5-6 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in order to be present at Mar-A-Lago during the first US visit by China's president, and one week later travel to Russia, which as Reuters said is "a step allies may see as putting Moscow's concerns ahead of theirs", or in other words - an intentional snub.
"No matter how you spin it, this is unfortunate symbolism," said one senior European diplomat of Tillerson's plan to skip the April 5-6 NATO Brussels meeting, saying it undid the work of Trump's vice president and defense minister, who visited NATO headquarters in February to provide reassurances after Trump's criticism of the alliance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was in Washington on Tuesday. Posing for photographs with Defense Secretary James Mattis, he declined to answer a reporter's questions on what signal it sent that Tillerson did not plan to attend the meeting, according to a reporter who attended the session.
It didn't take long for the unfortunate optics of this "scheduling conflict" to catch up to both Tillerson (and Trump, whose greenlighting of Tillerson's schedule did not reflect well on the president who has been accused of proximity to Moscow) and as a result Tillerson has proposed new dates on Tuesday for a NATO meeting, the State Department told Reuters after he initially decided to skip the talks and rebuffed the alliance's efforts to reschedule them.
As Reuters initially reported on Monday night, Tillerson would stay in the United States to attend Trump's expected April 6-7 talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. U.S. officials also said Tillerson would visit Russia later in April. NATO then offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend both it and the Xi talks but the U.S. State Department rebuffed the idea, a former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday.
Then on Tuesday, things changed when State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the department put forward new dates for a meeting when Tillerson could come, noting that such a decision would have to be made by consensus among the 28 NATO members.
"We are certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson," Toner told reporters. "We have offered alternative dates that the secretary could attend."
He also sought to allay European concerns by saying that "the United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO."
It was not yet clear if the NATO meeting would be rescheduled to accommodate Tillerson. Trump himself is expected in Brussels for a NATO summit in May, although the date is still under discussion. NATO has proposed holding that meeting on May 25, a NATO diplomat said.
Meanwhile, as Reuters adds, several diplomats said they were unhappy that Tillerson had not offered to hold a NATO meeting in Washington later this week, given that most alliance foreign ministers and Stoltenberg will be there for a meeting of an international coalition against the Islamic State militant group.