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.