WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday welcomed Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat to the White House for Trump’s highest level face-to-face contact with a Russian government official since he took office in January.
The talks came a day after Trump fired the FBI director who was overseeing an investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov entered through the West Executive entrance, out of range for reporters to ask questions. Also attending was Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. who is at the center of many of the Trump administration’s early Russia-related woes.
The Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted a photo of Trump and Lavrov shaking hands in the Oval Office, and another of Trump and Kislyak. The White House called reporters into the Oval Office around the time of the meeting, but Lavrov and Kislyak had already left. And in a surprise, Trump greeted the media with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In brief remarks to journalists after the meeting, Trump said his decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey the day before his meeting with Lavrov did not affect the meeting “at all.”
Earlier Wednesday, Lavrov met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said the get-together was a chance for the two to “continue our dialogue” and “exchange of views” that they started last month in Moscow. During that trip, Tillerson said relations with Russia were at a low and needed to be rebuilt.
A Russian plan to stabilize Syria after more than six years of civil war was the most urgent foreign policy topic on the Trump-Lavrov agenda.
But their meeting was impossible to separate from the Trump administration’s unfolding political drama in Washington, where FBI and congressional investigations are looking into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Kremlin related to the 2016 election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have asserted that Moscow meddled in the election to help Trump’s chances of victory.
Putin asked Trump to meet with Lavrov when the two leaders spoke by phone last week, according to a person with knowledge of the call. The person insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the private conversation.
During his appearance with Tillerson, Lavrov feigned surprise when asked whether Comey’s firing as FBI director cast a shadow over the U.S.-Russia talks.
“Was he fired? You’re kidding. You’re kidding,” Lavrov told reporters sarcastically before waving his hand dismissively and leaving the room. Tillerson ignored questions about Trump and Comey.
Less than a month into Trump’s presidency, he fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, saying Flynn misled senior administration officials about his pre-inauguration talks with Kislyak.
At a Senate hearing Monday, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said she warned Trump’s White House in January that Flynn “essentially could be blackmailed” by the Russians because he apparently had lied to his bosses about his contacts with Kislyak.
Trump has said he has no ties to Russia and isn’t aware of any involvement by his aides in any Russian election interference. He calls the various investigations a “hoax” driven by Democrats still bitter that their candidate, Hillary Clinton, was defeated last year.
But his hopes for a possible rapprochement with Moscow, so regularly repeated during the campaign, have been derailed. Ties soured further in April after the U.S. blamed a Russian ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, for a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians and Trump ordered that some 60 cruise missiles be fired at a Syrian air base in response.
After Tillerson visited Putin and Lavrov in Moscow on April 12, Trump said flatly, “Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”
Still, Tillerson’s meeting provided a blueprint for how the former Cold War foes might go about improving ties.
A main focus is Syria, where both governments want to end a civil war that has killed up to 400,000 people, contributed to a global refugee crisis and allowed the Islamic State group to emerge as a global terrorist threat. The continued fighting between rebels and Assad’s military has complicated U.S. efforts to defeat IS.
Lavrov was conveying a Russian plan to end the violence, after hashing out an agreement with Iran and Turkey last week.
It focuses on the creation of four de-escalation zones. Critical details need to be finalized and the U.S. response has been cautious, with top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saying they’re still studying the concept and its various unanswered questions. The would-be safe zones would not cover areas where the U.S.-led coalition is fighting IS.
Despite the lack of clarity, the meeting between Trump and Lavrov in itself was a sign of some progress.
The Russian diplomat hadn’t visited Washington at all since 2013, a year before Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and two years before it intervened militarily in Syria to help Assad remain in power.