Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a point to specifically call out Russia in his farewell statement on Tuesday – highlighting an urgent challenge that is now the responsibility of his replacement Mike Pompeo along with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
After a year in which President Donald Trump has largely avoided a direct confrontation with Moscow, Tillerson used his final press conference in the role of top US diplomat to reiterate warnings issued by several military and intelligence officials in recent months about the need to confront “the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government.”
“Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly. Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their party, a situation which is not in any one’s interest,” Tillerson said.
US officials have been sounding the alarm in recent months about Russia’s growing multidimensional threat to US interests abroad and at home ranging from fears of widespread election interference to aggressive military posturing.
But the administration has come under repeated fire for failing to appropriately address Russia’s aggressive cyber campaign and expanding military presence in the Middle East and along NATO’s eastern border.
Replacing Tillerson – and the expected eventual departure of national security adviser H.R. McMaster – will give Trump the chance to round out his foreign policy unit and it will leave Mattis as perhaps the final restraining influence on Trump’s diplomacy.
How will Pompeo address Russian threats?
The task of navigating complex diplomatic challenges posed by Moscow now falls to Trump’s soon-to-be former CIA director Pompeo.
Trump praised Pompeo on Tuesday saying he was “always on the same wavelength” – something that he could not say for his departing chief diplomat Tillerson.
Pompeo, a politically astute former Republican congressman, has been careful to align himself with Trump in public on key issues, as has UN envoy Nikki Haley, and they will form a tight and combative foreign policy team.
But Pompeo’s ability to move beyond reporting on events to shaping them by creating policy and working with allies remains to be seen, lawmakers and analysts said. Some suggested his close alignment with Trump means policies aren’t likely to change.
There are questions about how Pompeo will approach Russia.
At the Aspen Security Conference in July, Pompeo was criticized for misrepresenting findings about Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election in a way that aligned with Trump’s tendency to downplay the interference.