President Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House on Wednesday, one day after firing the man whose agency is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election that brought Trump to power.
Trump fired now-former FBI Director James Comey, who told Congress earlier this year that his agency has been investigating Russia’s actions — and possible ties to anyone associated with the Trump campaign — since July. As NPR’s Domenico Montanaro reports, the firing of Comey with more than six years left on his term in office has prompted a flurry of questions about the president’s motives — and about what’s next.
Lavrov’s meeting with the president was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET, and it was declared closed to the press. Russian agencies tweeted photos from the Oval Office showing that in addition to Lavrov, Trump shook hands with Russia’s ambassador to America, Sergey Kislyak — a key figure in the investigation into Trump’s ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
After the Lavrov session had concluded, members of the U.S. media were allowed into the Oval Office, where they found the president sitting with Henry Kissinger, who served as President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state. The meeting hadn’t been listed on the president’s official schedule.
Trump said he and Kissinger had met to talk “about Russia and various other matters,” according to the pool report.
To a question about Comey, Trump reportedly replied, “He wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job.”
The president also said the issue had not affected his meeting with Lavrov.
Lavrov arrived in Washington on Tuesday. He met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the White House early Wednesday, ahead of his visit to the Oval Office.
Tillerson and Lavrov made a brief appearance Wednesday morning for a photo-op, and as Tillerson began to lead his guest back behind closed doors, Lavrov responded to a question about Comey’s firing.
When a reporter asked whether the dismissal has “cast a shadow” over their talks, Lavrov stopped and seemed to look genuinely quizzical when he responded, “Was he fired?” — but then adopted a deadpan tone as he told the reporter, “You are kidding, you are kidding.”
With a theatrical twitch of his head, the Russian diplomat then followed his American counterpart away from the media. The exchange was not included in the State Department’s brief video snippet from the photo-op that it posted to Twitter.
Tillerson’s office said his talks with Lavrov would focus on “Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral issues.” But the Russians’ visit to the White House also came as the Kremlin made its first public comments on Comey’s removal.
When Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked how the firing might affect U.S.-Russia relations, Peskov replied, “We hope that it will not affect them at all. That’s the United States’ internal affair. That’s the U.S. president’s independent decision, which has nothing to do and should have nothing to do with Russia.”
Comey’s dismissal has sparked new calls for an independent probe into Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election — despite the Trump administration’s assertion that Comey was removed over his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server.
“This is nothing less than Nixonian,” said Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Announcing Comey’s abrupt firing Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president “acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”