Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his Russian counterpart over the weekend that Russia's effort to disrupt the U.S. election was a "serious incident" that has disrupted bilateral ties.
Tillerson raised the issue again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting on the sidelines of a summit in the Philippines. The discussion was the first face-to-face encounter between the top diplomats since Russia ordered hundreds of U.S. personnel to leave the country after Congress passed a new sanctions bill.
But Tillerson said he blamed the Russians for the current breakdown directly.
"Russian meddling in the elections is – was certainly a serious incident," Tillerson told reporters at the ASEAN Summit on Monday. "We talked about it in the discussion we had with Minister Lavrov yesterday and trying to help them understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship between the U.S., the American people, and the Russian people, that this had created serious mistrust between our two countries and that we simply have to find some way to deal with that."
Russia denies responsibility for the 2016 cyberattacks against the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton's campaign, although Putin has suggested that "patriotic" Russians might have conducted the hacks on their own initiative. President Trump has suggested his denials are persuasive, despite U.S. intelligence assessments that Russian intelligence officials were involved in the operation, and faulted Congress for passing the sanctions bill.
"Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low," Trump tweeted last week. "You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us [healthcare]!"
Tillerson lobbied against the sanctions bill when it was moving through Congress, and said it would hamper negotiations with Russia on a variety of issues. But he defended himself against the accusation that he is "appeasing" Russia rather than trying to deter future aggression.
"We view the relationship from a very pragmatic point of view," Tillerson said. "And the fact that we want to work with them on areas that are of serious national security interest to us while at the same time having this extraordinary issue of mistrust that divides us, that's just what we in the diplomatic part of our relationship are required to do. . . I think, again, these are two very large countries, and we should find the places that we can work together."