Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that controversial comments attributed to President Donald Trump during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office were necessary diplomacy.
The New York Times reported that Trump referred to former FBI Director James Comey as "a real nut job" during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office the day after he fired Comey.
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Citing an official summary, the Times further reported Trump told the Russians that the firing of Comey had taken the "pressure" off of him vis-a-vis the FBI's investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
"Fox News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace pressed Tillerson, who was present at the meeting, on what exactly happened in the Oval Office that day.
"My question to you," Wallace asked Tillerson, "as someone who was in that meeting, was he telling the Russians that firing Comey was taking off legal and political pressure?"
"That's not my interpretation, certainly, of the conversation," Tillerson said.
Rather, he said, Trump was trying to calm concerns the Russians may have had about fixing deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations.
"I think what the president was trying to convey to the Russians was, look, I'm not going to be distracted by all these issues that are here at home, that affect us domestically, I'm not going to let that distract from our efforts to see if we can engage with you, engage with Russia and identify areas where we might be able to work together," Tillerson said.
"The President, I think, reemphasized the message to the Russians that the relationship was at a low point and we need to change that. We need to both work towards trying to improve that," he added.
Trump has previously suggested that relations between the two countries may be at "an all-time low."
Wallace tried to reemphasize the President's language choices.
"He seemed to be saying that firing Comey would help remove one of the distractions," Wallace said.
"Chris, my takeaway from that conversation was not that point at all," Tillerson said. "I think again the president was simply saying to the Russians, these issues at home are not going to get in the way of my effort and the effort of my government to see if we can find a way to move this relationship forward."