A day after firing the head of the agency investigating his administration’s ties to Russia, President Donald Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House for talks focusing largely on Syria.
“I had a very good meeting with Lavrov. I thought it was very, very good,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.
Sitting in the Oval Office with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at his side, Trump gave few details about his discussion with the Russian diplomat.
“I think that we’re going to do very well with respect to Syria,” he said. “I think things are happening that are really, really, really positive. We’re going to stop the killing and the death.”
The Lavrov visit marks the highest-level meeting Trump has held with a top Moscow official since assuming power, and it comes a month after the president said relations between Washington and Moscow may be at an all-time low.
U.S. and Russian officials have said discussions are under way for a possible meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany in July.
Speaking to reporters at the Russian embassy after the meeting, Lavrov was more specific.
“We discussed Syria in great detail in the context of the ideas that have been put forth regarding the setting up of de-escalation areas” he said. “We have got a common understanding regarding the fact that, that should be a step that would contribute to the cessation of violence throughout the territory of Syria. It will be a step to contribute to the settlement of humanitarian problems.”
A readout of the meeting issued by the White House said the talks also included other regional hotspots.
“President Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria, in particular, underscoring the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian proxies,” the statement said.
Jonathan Adelman, international affairs professor at the University of Denver, told VOA that Russia has a powerful role to play in Syria but must make some decisions about its campaign there.
“One is, are they going to take a realistic American offer to work on ending the terror that’s killed over 400,000 Syrians, or are they going to stay together, especially with Iran, which is very hostile to the United States,” Adelman said.
The White House statement about Wednesday’s meeting also noted Trump’s desire to build a stronger bilateral relationship with Moscow on a wide variety of topics.
“The president raised Ukraine, and expressed his administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict and stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements. He also raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere,” according to the text.
At an early morning meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov feigned ignorance about Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. When a reporter shouted a question about the firing, Lavrov replied, “Was he fired? You’re kidding. You’re kidding.”
Tillerson and Lavrov met in Moscow last month, amid tensions over the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airfield after alleged chemical attacks by Syrian forces on civilians, including many children.
Russia, U.S. election
The visit by Russia’s top diplomat seems to signal a step forward in the chilly Moscow-Washington relationship. At a White House news conference April 12, Trump said, “Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”
The relationship has been clouded by allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, which many believe may have influenced the outcome of the November election.
On Tuesday, Trump fired Comey, who had been leading the investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. So far, the probe has uncovered no evidence of to substantiate the collusion charge.
Reuters reported Wednesday from Moscow that the Kremlin had said it hoped Comey’s firing would not affect Russia’s ties with the United States, saying it believed his dismissal had nothing to do with Russia.
At his news conference Wednesday, Lavrov scoffed at a question about the possibility of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
“I never thought that I would have to answer such questions particularly being in the U.S.,” Lavrov told reporters. “There is not a single fact, there is no compelling evidence given to anyone regarding Russia’s intervention and that’s it.”
Syria sticking point
Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, now with the Atlantic Council research institute, told VOA that the two countries have their work cut out to find a common approach on the Syria question.
“On Syria we both claim to be seeking the same thing, which is an end to the civil war and a transition to some kind of new government acceptable to all the people of Syria. But of course when you get down to the details, we can’t seem to agree on anything,” Vershbow said.
He says the main sticking point remains whether Syria’s future includes President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. and most other countries say must step down, but Russia supports. Also at issue, Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a deal on “de-escalation zones” — or safe zones for Syria civilians — at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, last week. The U.S. only sent an envoy to the talks as an observer.
VOA’s Victor Beattie contributed to this report.