WASHINGTON – The Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday was the second for Russia’s foreign minister. The president of Ukraine is still waiting for his first.
Trump sat down with Sergey Lavrov at a moment of high drama in Washington – just hours after House Democrats announced articles of impeachment against Trump for his dealings with Ukraine, a U.S. ally that is battling against Russian aggression.
Central to the impeachment inquiry is whether Trump withheld military aid and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president as leverage to get Kyiv to investigate Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Trump’s critics say he is too friendly with the Russian government and take issue with his public praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin – particularly given that country’s interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Trump insists he needs to engage with Moscow and says the two nations can cooperate on many fronts, including countering terrorism.
The Trump-Lavrov meeting also came just a day after the Justice Department’s watchdog said the FBI was justified in opening its investigation into ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Trump has long slammed the investigation as a witch hunt and says the FBI never should have started it.
The White House said after the Trump-Lavrov meeting that Trump warned against any Russian attempts to interfere in United States elections and urged Russia to resolve the conflict with Ukraine. At a news conference later at the Russian Embassy in Washington, Lavrov acknowledged talking about election interference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but said it didn’t come up in his meeting with Trump. “We haven’t exactly even discussed elections,” Lavrov said.
Earlier, Trump lashed out at the head of the FBI for not denouncing the watchdog’s report.
“I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me … a failure of the FBI up and down the chain of command,“ Trump said in a tweet.
Trump’s fury recalled the day of his first meeting with Lavrov, in May 2017. Just before that meeting, Trump fired former FBI Director Jim Comey over the Russia investigation. Trump was criticized for disclosing classified information to Lavrov and other Russian officials at that meeting. Lavrov shrugged off a question about whether he was privy to any classified information this time. “If you find any secrets, the scoop is yours,“ he told the reporter who asked.
In his meeting with Lavrov, Pompeo warned against Russian interference in U.S. elections. Lavrov repeated denials of Russian interference, calling them “baseless.“ Special counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the Trump-Russia investigation from the FBI, determined that Russia interfered in the election in an effort to help Trump beat his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“I was clear: It’s unacceptable, and I made our expectations of Russia clear,” Pompeo said of election interference. “The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections. Period. Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response.”
Lavrov derided the “wave of suspicions that has overcome Washington“ related to election interference, renewing demands that evidence of such activity be given to Moscow.
“All speculation about our alleged interference in domestic processes of the United States is baseless,” Lavrov said.
Pompeo said the U.S. had already published its conclusions. “We don’t think there is any mistake about what transpired,” he said.
Pompeo and Lavrov also discussed arms control agreements, Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela. Pompeo said that he and Lavrov “spent a fair amount of time talking about Ukraine“ and that the U.S. would not relent on its stance that Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, “belongs to Ukraine.“
The two noted cooperation in counterterrorism and anti-narcotics efforts that has continued despite the tensions and expressed hope that shared goals for North Korea and Iran could be realized. But they also acknowledged that their differences are significant and include the New START arms control treaty that is due to expire next year and the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by both countries.
On the treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin favors an extension of the pact, but Trump has said he wants China included if it is to be extended. Lavrov noted that Beijing has said it isn’t interested in joining but reiterated Moscow’s desire to keep the deal alive.
“Our proposal is still on the table,“’ Lavrov said. “We’ve been heard. … And now it’s up to the U.S. to decide.“’
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., expressed doubt that Trump would demand accountability from the Russians.
“President Trump’s pattern of cozying up to autocrats and our adversaries harms American interests and undermines American leadership,“ he said. “While dialogue with the Russians is important, especially for strategic stability and the future of arms control, I have no confidence in President Trump to defend our interests in these conversations.”
Lavrov arrived in Washington after a meeting in Paris on Monday between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, along with the French and German leaders, at which they agreed to revive the peace process on the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and exchange all their prisoners.
But they failed to resolve crucial issues such as a timeline on local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region. Still, Russian and Ukrainian officials on Tuesday described the talks as a step toward peace and pledged to continue negotiations.
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