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
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.
FBI Director Comey fired: Full coverage
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 the headlines.
In an interview last week, Trump once again refused to blame Russia for attempting to influence the 2016 election through hacking and other means, despite an overwhelming consensus by US law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Trump and Putin also spoke by phone last week about the war in Syria for the first time since Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian government air base last month after an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime.
The US missile strike angered Moscow and led Lavrov to declare that “it’s sad how damaging this is to the already bad relations between US and Russia.”
Why don’t Trump-Russia leaks come from Russia?
Since Lavrov’s meeting with Trump is closed to the press, few details may emerge of what they discuss. However, its timing – in the midst of the furor over the Trump administration’s firing of Comey – has raised some eyebrows.
Lavrov is a highly experienced diplomat who has served as Russian foreign minister since 2004. Before that, he was Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York from 1994 to 2004.
In total, Lavrov, who speaks fluent English, French and Sinhalese according to his foreign ministry biography, has 45 years of diplomatic experience, while his US counterpart Tillerson has just over three months.
The pair’s face-to-face meeting comes ahead of an Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“On Syria, the secretary intends to discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict,” the State Department said in a statement.
Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has taken a central role in ongoing Syria peace talks, while the United States – which continues to target ISIS in Syria and Iraq as part of an international coalition – has not been directly involved.
Russia-US ties face long haul to recover from ‘zero’
‘Reset’ of relations?
After meeting with Putin and Lavrov last month in Moscow, Tillerson was blunt about their differences, saying US-Russia relations were “at a low point, there is a low level of trust between our two countries.”
But Tillerson also offered his Russian counterparts a bridge, tempering the open tensions by urging that Washington and Moscow find ways to cooperate.
Before taking office, Trump touted his intention to improve ties with Moscow. This ambition has been largely derailed, however, by continued questions over his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the two countries’ disagreements over Syria.
In 2009, under then-President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously presented Lavrov with a “reset” button to symbolically restart US-Russia relations. Unfortunately, instead of “reset” the Russian word on the button read “overcharged.”
Diplomatically, Lavrov said he would keep the button on his desk. The attempt at a reset didn’t work and relations between the US and Russia at the end of the Obama administration plunged to Cold War-era lows.
CNN’s Dan Merica, Emma Burrows, Michelle Kosinski and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.