With Awkward Timing, Trump Meets Lavrov

Yesterday talks between the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov and President of the U.S. Donald Trump continued for an hour. There are no details, but Trump called the talks “good.” However, New York Times states that it was awkward timing for the meeting. Its article With Awkward Timing, Trump Meets Top Russian Official says that only hours after dismissing James B. Comey as director of the F.B.I., amid an investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, the president met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, at the White House. The Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak — best known to many Americans as the man who discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser — was also in the Oval Office for the meeting. The world’s only glimpse of this session came from the Russian news agency Tass, which distributed photos of the meeting, with a grinning Mr. Trump shaking hands with the two visitors. No reporters were allowed in to ask questions — though they were ushered in minutes later for Mr. Trump’s session with Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state.

And, at the State Department, there was no briefing on an earlier meeting between Mr. Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. Mr. Tillerson is famously reluctant to talk with the press. So that left the field clear for Mr. Lavrov, who has now sat opposite four American secretaries of state and knows how to work the news media well, to describe the conversations. The firing of Mr. Comey was the main subject from the start: When Mr. Tillerson greeted his Russian counterpart in the diplomatic reception room on the seventh floor of the State Department, a reporter shouted a question about whether Mr. Comey’s dismissal “cast a shadow” on the meeting. Mr. Lavrov, known for a puckish sense of humor, shot back: “Was he fired? You’re kidding! You’re kidding!” He then disappeared into Mr. Tillerson’s office.

Instead of basking in the glow of questions focused on Russia’s plans to bring peace to Syria, Mr. Lavrov faced a battery of queries about the effect of the Comey firing on relations with Russia. Mr. Lavrov last visited Washington in 2013. “They view this as an uncomfortable distraction that pushes the Russia story up a few steps,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign-policy analyst and columnist. “It escalates the feeding frenzy.”

When Mr. Lavrov was asked if he was relieved that Mr. Comey had been fired, given that the F.B.I. director was pursuing accusations of Russian efforts to influence an American election, the foreign minister laughed. “I never thought I’d have to answer such questions, all the more in the United States of America, with your greatly developed democratic and political system,” he said, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.

He said Russia was aware that relations with the United States were sputtering against an “abnormal background” and all the “noise” raised about the nature of those relations. “I think that it is even degrading for the American people to hear that Russia is managing the domestic policy of the U.S.,” Mr. Lavrov said. “How can a great nation, a great country, succumb to this and think in such categories?”

Then he was asked again about the firing and whether Mr. Trump had raised concerns about Russian behavior. He paused and then said, “We spoke with President Trump about concrete things and did not touch on this bacchanalia.”

Mr. Trump told reporters he had a “very, very good meeting” and that both nations wanted to end “the killing — the horrible, horrible killing in Syria as soon as possible and everybody is working toward that end.” He offered no thoughts on whether the United States should participate in “de-escalation zones” in Syria, part of a proposal by Russia to designate certain regions as safe areas for refugees. Mr. Lavrov said that “the devil is always in the details,” and added that “at this stage there is an agreement in conceptual terms and even to a certain degree in practical terms in what regards the geographical parameters of these de-escalation zones.”

The United States has been uncomfortable with the idea of participating in security zones in Syria because of the involvement of Iran, not to mention the government of President Bashar al-Assad, in carrying out that plan. Mr. Lavrov remained determined. “I think that the Americans are also interested in this,” he said. “We are proceeding from the assumption that they will take an initiative in this process.”

And he paid a compliment to the Trump administration. “Right now our dialogue is free from the ideological bias that was characteristic of the Obama administration,” Mr. Lavrov said. “The Trump administration, the president himself and the secretary of state, I have become convinced of this once again, are people who mean business. They want to reach agreements.”

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