What a Time for Russia’s Top Diplomat to Be in Town
With Russiagate on everyone’s lips, who better to meet with Tillerson and Trump than Sergei Lavrov?
President Donald Trump had but one meeting on his official schedule for Wednesday, the day after he fired FBI chief James Comey, the man overseeing the investigation into his campaign’s potential ties to Russia.
That meeting, held Wednesday morning, was with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
Lavrov’s visit was announced on Monday. He was to meet first with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to continue their conversation from Tillerson’s April trip to Moscow, focusing on Syria and Ukraine.
After Tillerson, in front of the press, welcomed Lavrov to Washington “so that we can continue our dialogue and our exchange of views that began in Moscow with the dialogue he hosted on a very broad range of topics,” a reporter shouted out a question. Would Comey’s firing “cast a shadow” over the talks?
“Was he fired?” deadpanned Lavrov, a diplomat since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. He raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding.”
It wasn’t much of a laughing matter on Capitol Hill, where many Democrats (and some Republicans) called for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump team’s possible coordination with Russia to hack the election. Meanwhile, Lavrov himself headed to the White House for a meeting with the president that was closed to the press, although TASS, Russia’s state-backed news agency, published photos of the meeting. Those photos showed Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, was present, though the White House did not share beforehand that he would be present.
Asked why TASS was present at a meeting closed to the press, the White House responded, “On background, our official photographer and their official photographer were present, that’s it.”
The two were expected to discuss closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on counterterrorism, the point on which Russian state-backed media reports the two countries can “rather easily” find common ground — but Trump’s hopes for a warmer relationship with Moscow could yet be upended by the multiple probes into his campaign’s possible ties with Russia. Trump said the Comey firing did not affect his meeting with Lavrov.
After the meeting, Lavrov spoke to the press, saying he and the president had spoken of issues concerning the Middle East and Ukraine, and had agreed to continue speaking and working together. Lavrov said that sanctions were not discussed.
“We also discussed relations between our countries, which are not in the best condition because of a lot of efforts to undermine those relations,” Lavrov said, adding, “We understand quite well that American citizens and Russian citizens would like to live in peace and we have to remove all superficial obstacles.”
The U.S. State Department issued a readout later, saying Tillerson and Lavrov met “for more than an hour to discuss a range of issues including Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral concerns.”
The White House, for its part, issued a readout saying that Trump spoke of needing to work together on Syria, “expressed his Administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict” in Ukraine, and “further emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”
The Kremlin has long maintained that any investigation into Trump’s potential ties to Russia is a U.S. domestic matter. That was the line Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov applied to the case of Comey Wednesday morning. The decision to fire Comey doesn’t concern Moscow, Peskov told reporters, adding that he hoped the matter “won’t in any way affect” U.S.-Russian relations. Later, before taking part in a hockey match, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia had nothing to do with the matter.
The White House and Kremlin alike have recently described those relations as being at their lowest point since the Cold War. With Trump’s dismissal of Comey supercharging the Russiagate scandal, they may get even worse.
Update, May 10, 2017, 11:42 a.m. ET: This piece was updated to include comments given by Trump and Lavrov.
Update, May 10, 2017, 1:30 p.m. ET: This piece was updated to include mention of the readouts, TASS photos, and Putin’s pre-hockey comments.
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