U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says President Donald Trump has asked him to push ahead with efforts to rebuild the U.S. relationship with Russia, and not let the political turmoil surrounding ongoing investigations impede him.

Questions about the congressional and FBI investigations into possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election have followed Tillerson to the South Pacific, where he and Defense Secretary James Mattis are meeting with Oceania allies this week.

Tillerson said he had “no direct knowledge” and couldn’t comment on the Russia investigations or their effect on the Trump administration.

He said the president has asked him to remain focused on rebuilding trust with Moscow, which he said is at a low point.

“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 on this relationship. And he’s been quite clear with me to proceed at whatever pace and in the areas that I think we might make progress,” Tillerson said.

VOA asked new State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert about Tillerson’s comments at her first on-camera briefing Tuesday. She said one area where the U.S. and Russia can work together is in fighting the Islamic State group.

“We are going to identify areas of mutual interest where we can work together, but it’s important to know, in areas where we don’t see eye to eye with Russia, we will continue to stand up for our interests, our values and the values of our partners,” Nauert said.

Difficult to make inroads

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution told VOA the potentially explosive ongoing probes may make it difficult for Tillerson to make inroads with Russia.

“I think he can try, but my guess is politically that’s not going to be realistic,” Pifer said. “And to some extent, there is this cloud hanging over the administration on the question of relations with Russia.

“I would make the point that much of this is self-inflicted, because the president, unfortunately, and the White House have handled these concerns in a way that suggests they’re trying to hide something,” he added.

Pifer told VOA he is very disappointed that Trump did not publicly reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5, the collective defense guarantee, at last month’s NATO summit in Brussels, although virtually every senior member of his Cabinet who deals with these issues has.

“I think it was a mistake in that it raises, perhaps not a lot but a little bit, it raises that risk that in a crisis, the Russians might make a miscalculation, that the Russians might think maybe the Americans won’t be there. And that’s something we don’t want the Russians to think,” Pifer said.

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