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Story highlights

Lavrov met first with Tillerson, made offhand remark about Comey firing

Trump-Lavrov encounter was the highest-level meeting between the US administration and Moscow

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak at the White House Wednesday amid the swirling investigation of Russian contacts with Trump campaign and transition officials in 2016 and Tuesday’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was handling the probe.

Kislyak has been a central figure in the controversy, as then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired after it emerged that he had misrepresented conversations with Kislyak to others in the White House. Flynn is now one of the key figures in the investigation.

The Russian Embassy tweeted a photo of Trump shaking the hand of Russia’s ambassador in what appears to be the Oval Office. Current and former US intelligence officials have accused Kislyak of being a top spy and recruiter of spies, a notion that Russian officials have dismissed.

A White House statement after the meeting omitted any mention of Kislyak’s presence, instead focusing on Trump’s conversation with Lavrov, which the President described as “very, very good.”

The Russian Embassy had sent out the photo as Trump was set to meet Lavrov on Wednesday. The meeting was the highest-level encounter between the US administration and Moscow since Trump’s inauguration.

According to the statement, Trump emphasized the need for the US and Russia to work together to end violence in Syria and Ukraine, floated the prospect of US-Russia cooperation on resolving Middle East conflicts and returned to a campaign theme by emphasizing his desire for better relations with Moscow.

Lavrov denies election meddling

Lavrov, who started off a news conference at the Russian Embassy by remarking that “relations between our countries … are not in the best condition,” also fielded several questions about Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 race to obvious irritation. “There is not a single fact (or) compelling evidence regarding Russia’s intervention,” he said.

At another point, he mocked the idea, saying it must be “humiliating for the American people to realize the Russian Federation is controlling the situation in the United States.”

Lavrov met first with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss Ukraine, Syria and other bilateral issues, but even their brief appearance before reporters was upstaged by the Comey firing.

After Tillerson briefly welcomed Lavrov and thanked the Russian minister for coming to Washington, a reporter asked if their talks were shadowed by the former FBI director’s sudden dismissal.

An agitated Lavrov said, “Was he fired? You’re kidding! You’re kidding.”

Lavrov, who has been Russia’s top diplomat for more than a decade, was already due to be in town for the meeting with Tillerson before the Trump meeting was announced.

Tillerson, who worked extensively in Russia in his former job as CEO of ExxonMobil, has made improving ties with Russia a priority, launching a working group to address the issue.

The meeting between the two men was expected to be “broad, blunt and businesslike,” a senior official told CNN ahead of the meeting. With ongoing fighting paralyzing eastern Ukraine, the two foreign ministers discussed the need to fully implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

The two men also discussed Syria and the need to defeat ISIS, with Lavrov saying that Trump had proposed de-escalation zones in a phone call to Russia President Vladimir Putin and that Tillerson had outlined details during an April visit to Moscow.

The Russian minister said there would be four de-escalation areas, including in the south, “which is a particular interest for the US,” as it would stabilize the border area between Syria, Jordan and Israel.

The State Department official said it was “too early to tell” whether a Russian-backed plan for safe zones inside Syria was viable.

The Trump administration said Comey was fired for mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, but Democrats ridiculed that notion, raising parallels to Watergate-era firings.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had to recuse himself from the ongoing investigations into Russia after contacts with Kislyak came to light, delivered the recommendation to Trump that Comey be relieved of his duties. Sessions had been asked directly during his confirmation if he’d had contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign and he had said no.

Alleged ties to Russia

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates said Monday that she alerted the White House earlier this year that then-Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn could be “essentially blackmailed by the Russians.”

Her testimony pushed the story of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia back into th