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Secretary of State won't talk about Russia probes on brief stop in New Zealand

Political drama aside, Trump sees Russia as an important "global player," Tillerson said

CNN —  

President Donald Trump asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to let the ongoing political saga back home stand in the way of improving ties with Moscow, the top US diplomat said Tuesday.

Tillerson wouldn’t comment on the ongoing US probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 election “because I have no direct knowledge,” he said during an eight-hour visit to New Zealand, where he met Prime Minister Bill English.

But the Secretary of State said Trump sees Russia as an important “global player” and wants Tillerson to focus on stabilizing ties between Washington and Moscow to avoid further deterioration of the diplomatic partnership.

“The President has been clear to me: Do not let what’s happening over here in the political realm prevent you from the work you need to do in this relationship,” Tillerson told reporters in Wellington.

Read: FBI Russia probe looking at Kushner role

The President’s beleaguered administration has faced months of scrutiny into alleged collusion with Russia by members of Trump’s camp to influence the presidential election.

Contractor charged in leak

A federal contractor was charged on Monday with leaking a classified intelligence memo with details of a 2016 Russian cyberhack of US voting software. Responding to the charges, US intelligence officials told CNN they stand by their January assessment that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards” but did not infiltrate vote-tallying operations.

The President has denied any collaboration with Russian agents in a bid to influence the election. Russia, too, has repeatedly denied trying to influence the election.

Tillerson’s comments come just days before fired FBI director James Comey is due to testify publicly before the Senate and reveal details about his discussions with Trump. Comey is unlikely to discuss the ongoing Russia investigation, a Senate intelligence committee source told CNN.

During his brief visit to New Zealand, Tillerson also tried to reassure allies in the Asia-Pacific region of the United States’ continued commitments in the wake of its withdrawal from several international agreements – such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate accord – since Trump took office.