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Tillerson: US weighing response to Russia's expulsion of diplomats

United States Department of State(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration is preparing a response to Moscow's demands that the U.S. drastically cut its diplomatic presence in Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Monday.

The comments came one day after Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a major summit hosted by ASEAN, a bloc of Southeast Asian countries.

Russia seized two facilities and ordered the U.S. to cut its diplomatic presence by more than 700 after Congress passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia last month. While Tillerson declined to detail what a U.S. response could look like, he said that he questioned Lavrov extensively on the issue.

The new sanctions law ties Trump’s hands by forbidding his ability to change sanctions without Congressional approval amid concerns the Trump administration was cozying up to Russia despite its efforts to undermine Western democracies.

It’s a critique that has been bolstered by Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his skepticism about the finding of the intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and boost his.

But instead, Tillerson said, he tried to “help” Lavrov and the Russian delegation “understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship” during their meeting Sunday – their first face-to-face after the latest tensions and their fifth to-date.

Tillerson added that while the Russian hack of the U.S. presidential election caused “serious mistrust,” the Trump administration will continue seeking cooperation with Russia because the U.S. can't “cut everything off” with Russia over the attack on America’s electoral system.

He also defended Trump’s push for cooperation as a necessity for the two nuclear-armed countries.

“We want to work with them on areas that are serious national security interest to us while at the same time having this extraordinary issue of mistrust that divides us,” the U.S.’s top diplomat said. “That’s just what we in the diplomatic part of our relationship are required to do.”

“I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue,” he added in reference to the election hack.

Russia has welcomed the increased cooperation, with Lavrov telling Russian media Sunday, “There’s no alternative to that,” according to Reuters.

The two governments are looking to cooperate on Syria and Ukraine in particular. Tillerson’s special envoy for Ukraine, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, IS heading to Moscow soon for talks amid a stalemate in the conflict and an uptick in violence. Discussions are also continuing on expanding the U.S.-Russian cease-fire with Jordan in a small corner of Syria's southwest, weeks after it was implemented.

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