Sec. Mattis on Russia: "NATO is not a threat and they know it"

Last Updated May 28, 2017 12:27 PM EDT

What do the Russians want?

"Beats me," Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Sunday's broadcast of "Face the Nation." "Right now, Russia's future should be wedded to Europe. Why they see NATO as a threat is beyond me. Clearly, NATO is not a threat."

"But right now, Russia is choosing to be a strategic competitor for any number of reasons," Mattis said, in his first formal television interview as defense secretary. "But the bottom line is NATO is not a threat and they know it. They have no doubt about it."

Mattis gave the interview as President Trump returned from his first trip abroad. During this trip, Mr. Trump met NATO members and other world leaders. 

Mattis said the U.S. is trying to deal with Russia diplomatically, at the behest of Mr. Trump. But the U.S. will also have to confront Russia when the Kremlin attacks on the cyber front or tries to change other countries' borders, Mattis said. That places the U.S. in a "strategically uncomfortable position," he said.

"Right now, we're dealing with Russia, attempting to deal with Russia, under President Trump's direction, in a diplomatic manner," Mattis said. "At the same time while willing to engage diplomatically, we are going to have to confront Russia when it comes to areas where they attack us, whether it be with cyber, or they try to change borders using armed force. And that's, admittedly, a strategically uncomfortable position, engaging diplomatically, trying to find a way out of this situation, but confronting them where we must. And we're going to continue in this mode and hopefully soon our diplomats will work their magic and start moving us out of this quandary we find ourselves in."

Top White House advisers said the country of Russia came up during the president's talks with foreign leaders, but Gary Cohn, director of the White House Economic Council, said the controversy over Russia and Mr. Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, did not. While Mr. Trump was abroad, there were multiple developments regarding Russia and the White House, including reports that Kushner wanted a secret communication channel with Russia and is under scrutiny in the FBI's Russia probe.

As Mr. Trump began his foreign trip, reports also emerged that the president told Russian diplomats that firing "nut job" FBI Director James Comey relieved "great pressure" on him, and that a senior adviser close to the president is a significant person of interest in the FBI's Russia investigation.

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.