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Tillerson trip to Moscow appears to be stand-in for Trump-Putin meeting

The State Department would give no details Tuesday about a planned trip by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow next month, but the visit appears to be a stand-in for any immediate meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson, who drew skepticism from Democrats and some Republicans for his ties to Russia and Putin when he headed the oil giant ExxonMobil, will be the first high-level Trump administration emissary to go to Moscow.

The trip could provide insight into how the Trump administration will approach Russia, even as the FBI says it is investigating the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 election and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and officials in Moscow.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Tillerson’s upcoming travel had said Monday that Tillerson would make the trip in mid-April. The same official confirmed that Tillerson would skip a meeting among foreign ministers of NATO member countries the previous week in Italy. Tillerson is expected to attend Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida instead.

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On Tuesday, U.S. officials said there might be an attempt to reschedule the NATO meeting so Tillerson can attend.

Although Tillerson has already met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in Germany, doing so on Russian soil sends a different message in both countries. Many meetings among U.S. and Russian diplomats have taken place in third countries to avoid the appearance that one side is bowing to the other.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to discuss the trip Tuesday. A White House spokesman did not respond to questions about the timing and agenda for the trip or the political thinking behind it.

The Kremlin said in February that a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin might be possible before the two attend the Group of 20 summit meeting in Germany in July. That will be the first time they are scheduled to be in the same place at the same time.

Slovenia, where first lady Melania Trump was born, has offered to host a separate meeting between the two leaders.

Putin said in February that Russia was waiting for the United States to decide how to approach any meetings.

Both Trump and Putin have said that they want to try to improve relations that sank to a new diplomatic low during the Obama administration. Until recent weeks, U.S.-Russia ties had appeared to be on the mend, with Putin welcoming Trump’s election and inauguration and Trump calling the Russian leader “very smart.”

The honeymoon now appears over, following the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential election in Trump’s favor. The Kremlin’s actions and any contacts it might have had with Trump campaign officials are separately being investigated by Congress and the FBI.

Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn, an advocate for improved relations with Moscow, was forced to resign as White House national security adviser over the nature of his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Russia denies involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and leading Democrats, as well as providing that politically damaging material to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks during the campaign.

Putin had hoped that the Trump administration would quickly lift U.S. financial sanctions levied over Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, but Tillerson and other U.S. officials have poured cold water on that.

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