WASHINGTON (AP) - All but ignoring the unfurling drama over Russia and the U.S. election, President Donald Trump on Wednesday sought to advance prospects for cooperation between the former Cold War foes in Syria and elsewhere in a rare Oval Office meeting with Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Trump were already destined to be a closely watched affair, given the dire state of U.S.-Russian relations and diplomatic wrangling going on over a Moscow-backed deal to stabilize Syria. Yet Trump’s stunning decision on the eve of the meeting to fire the FBI director overseeing a Russia-related investigation injected further intrigue into Lavrov’s first visit to Washington since 2013.
Trump “raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere,” according to a White House statement.
Trump and Lavrov met in private, though both sides cast the session as a sign of ties having improved since the U.S. leader’s assessment of them last month as at an “all-time low.” On Wednesday, they focused on areas of budding agreement and Lavrov sought to blame the recent acrimony on former President Barack Obama.
“The previous administration bent over backwards to undermine the solid foundation of our relations,” Lavrov told reporters at the Russian Embassy after meeting Trump. “We have to start at a very low level.”
In contrast, he credited Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom he met earlier in the day, with taking a “businesslike” approach that is “free from ideology,” focused on reaching agreements. None were apparently reached Wednesday.
The meeting was Trump’s highest level face-to-face contact with a Russian official since taking office and in itself represented modest progress. The last time Lavrov visited the American capital was before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and intervened militarily in Syria to help President Bashar Assad - actions that fueled U.S.-Russian tensions.
The Russian diplomat steadfastly refused to weigh in on Trump’s decision to fire James Comey, the former FBI director, who had been overseeing investigations of alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible collusion by Trump’s campaign. Lavrov called it a U.S. decision, echoing Putin, who said Russia had nothing to do with Comey’s dismissal.