If President Trump had any qualms about his first meeting with Russia’s top diplomat and its controversial Washington envoy – the morning after Trump fired the FBI director investigating Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election — he showed no outward sign of unease Wednesday.
Trump posed for grip-and-grin photos in the Oval Office, a venue usually reserved for welcoming other heads of state, with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s visiting foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador who has caused endless headaches for the White House.
The president’s first meeting with a senior Russian aide was closed to the U.S. news media. The White House had announced the meeting with Lavrov, but did not mention that Kislyak also would attend.
That was disclosed by the Kremlin, which quickly posted photos of its diplomats smiling and shaking hands with Trump. The images were carried by the state-run Tass news agency and disseminated on Twitter by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Washington embassy.
The White House reticence perhaps was understandable. Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired in February after the Washington Post disclosed that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his conversations with Kislyak.
And Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any role in the FBI investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential race after other news reports revealed that at his Senate confirmation hearing he had not disclosed his own meetings with Kislyak.
For his part, Lavrov appeared buoyant. On his way into earlier talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov had feigned ignorance of the outcry in Washington over Trump’s summary sacking of FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday.
“Was he fired?” the veteran diplomat asked, widening his eyes for comic effect. “You’re kidding! You’re kidding!”
Back in Russia, President Vladimir Putin gave Trump a vote of confidence – albeit in full hockey regalia, as he prepared to take to the ice in the Olympic venue city of Sochi.
“President Trump is acting in accordance with …his law and his constitution,” Putin told a CBS News reporter who caught him rinkside and asked about the Comey affair.
In the annals of international relations, Trump’s unorthodox style of dealing with friends and foes alike has given rise to plenty of astonished double-takes.
But Lavrov’s visit – underscored by fresh Kremlin denials of any interference in the U.S. presidential election – qualified as among the more surreal diplomatic encounters of Trump’s nearly four months in office.
Even before Comey was fired, headlines this week had focused on testimony by former acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, who said she had warned the White House less than a week after Trump took office in January that Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail for lying about his discussions with Kislyak, which were intercepted by U.S. intelligence monitoring of the diplomat.
That made it all the more surprising that the White House would acquiesce to a visual prompt on Wednesday about the Russian ambassador’s role in an ever-widening investigation.
Lavrov’s trip to the White House also carried overtones of deliberate messaging. His meeting with Trump was not added to the president’s public schedule until late Tuesday, hours after Comey’s firing. Lavrov’s planned meeting with Tillerson had already been announced.
The White House readout of Trump’s meeting with Lavrov offered a no-frills account of the Oval Office meeting.
The statement said Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the war in Syria, expressing particular concern about Russia’s allies in that conflict: Syrian President Bashar Assad and the government in Iran.
It said they also discussed the conflict in Ukraine, with Trump stressing Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk Protocol, a 2014 agreement intended to halt fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“The president further emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia,” the White House said.
Lavrov also described a just-business tone at the meeting. At a subsequent news conference at the fortress-like Russian Embassy in Washington, he said Moscow and Washington should turn their joint attention to resolving global disputes.
“It’s very important that President Trump and President Putin act at solving problems on the international agenda,” Lavrov said. He said a meeting of the two leaders was under discussion in early July, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of the world’s major economies in Hamburg, Germany.
Lavrov – who spoke through an interpreter although he is fluent in English – issued a fresh denial that Russia had meddled in last year’s U.S. campaign, telling reporters there was “no compelling evidence given to anyone about Russian intervention.”
He also made scornful reference to former President Obama, saying that by contrast, Trump and his associates were “people of action.”
“Whenever people are taking care of business instead of putting forth their ideological preferences, it’s much more useful,” he said.
Trump, speaking briefly to reporters afterward, called the meeting “very, very good,” especially with regard to Syria. “We’re going to stop the killing and the death,” he said.