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WASHINGTON– US President Donald Trump is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, a day after firing FBI chief James Comey amid a swirl of controversy over the FBI’s investigations into Russia’s alleged election meddling.
The meeting will be the highest-level meeting between the US administration and Moscow since Trump’s inauguration. It will take place at 10:30 a.m. ET in the Oval Office and will be closed to the press, according to the White House.
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. A visibly irritated 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.
The Lavrov-Tillerson conversation was expected to be “broad, blunt and businesslike,” a senior official told CNN. With ongoing fighting paralyzing eastern Ukraine, the two foreign ministers were set to discuss the need to fully implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
Tillerson was also set to press Lavrov on the need to de-escalate the violence in Syria’s civil war, make sure humanitarian assistance was reaching people there and find a political solution to the conflict. The State Department official said it was “too early to tell” whether a Russian-backed plan for safe zones inside Syria was viable.
But the meetings come against a backdrop of recriminations over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the firing of Comey. The FBI director had been responsible for the bureau’s investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign team colluded with Russia in last year’s election.
The Trump administration said Comey was fired for mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of atate, but Democrats ridiculed that notion, raising parallels to Watergate-era firings.
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 Russian President Vladimir 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.”
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 Wednesday will focus on ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine and Syria, the US State Department said. It 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.
‘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.