Russia's top foreign diplomat attended high-level meetings in Washington Tuesday, creating the extraordinary spectacle of President Donald Trump consulting with Moscow on the day House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment underpinned partly by Trump's unusual relationship with Russia.
Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which focused on arms control and other issues, was their second Oval Office meeting. The first time they huddled, Trump boasted about firing his FBI director and revealed classified information.
That session came to illustrate the unusual affinity Trump has demonstrated for Russia, which has been criticized by Democrats, given Moscow's attempts to help Trump win the 2016 election. Even amid impeachment proceedings indirectly tied to the Russia matter, Trump seems unconcerned about the appearance that he is fostering close ties to Russia and its leaders.
The House impeachment inquiry examined Trump's efforts to leverage US military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into a personal political rival and a theory that US intelligence services say was planted by Russia: that Ukraine and not Moscow interfered in the 2016 election.
'Very good meeting'
Trump met with Lavrov alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The White House said afterward that they had discussed an arms control deal that includes China, the denuclearization of North Korea, Iran's nuclear program and trade, including negotiations with China and the potential for greater trade with Russia. Lavrov told reporters that they had also discussed Afghanistan.
Afterward, Trump praised the "very good meeting." His tweet made no mention of Russia's war with Ukraine, but it did say he and Lavrov had discussed "election meddling."
But at a news conference at the Russian embassy at the end of the day, the Russian diplomat wouldn't answer directly when asked about the White House claim that Trump had warned him about Russia interfering in the 2020 elections.
"President Trump, oh, by the way I told him that State Secretary mentioned that publicly," Lavrov said, referring to Pompeo.
When asked if impeachment had come up, Lavrov said that he had "already responded and I said which topics were covered and as I said we did not talk about anything else." When asked whether it was a coincidence that Trump met with him on the day the House unveiled the articles of impeachment, Lavrov said, "I do not know."
He added, "Honestly, I was not interested in that."
Like the last Oval Office meeting between Trump and Lavrov, Tuesday's encounter was closed to US press.
But it once again drew attention to the shadow that Trump's relationship with Russia has cast over his presidency.
Lavrov complained about that at the Russian embassy news conference, saying that within hours of his meetings there were "already a lot of complaints" in the American press and that Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had called their meeting "a success of the Russian propaganda."
Lavrov also said that on Putin's instructions he had extended another invitation to Trump to attend Moscow's Victory Day in May, a celebration of Russia's military might.
Even as the Trump administration's National Security Strategy has identified Russia as a core competitor that aims to weaken US influence in the world and undermine its alliances, the President has lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisted on the need for better relations between the two countries and resisted Congress' efforts to levy sanctions on Moscow.
He has publicly sided with Putin over US intelligence services on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 elections and repeatedly tried to undermine findings that Moscow was responsible -- continuing that effort Tuesday morning, just hours before he was set to meet Lavrov.
Trump's meeting with the Russian foreign minister came a day after a highly anticipated report by the Justice Department inspector general found that there was no evidence of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 elections. Moreover, it also thoroughly rebutted the idea that FBI officials were driven by political bias to spy on Trump campaign officials as part of the investigation into Russia's interference.
After FBI Director Christopher Wray told ABC News the investigation was opened "with appropriate predication and authorization," Trump lashed out on Twitter Tuesday morning.
"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," Trump complained in his tweet. "With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!"
During a press conference at the State Department, Lavrov also took the opportunity to complain about US conclusions on Russian election interference, saying the current atmosphere in Washington smacks of the McCarthyism of the 1950s.
"Our joint work was hindered and continues to be hindered by the wave of suspicions that have overcome Washington," Lavrov said, adding that "speculations about our alleged interference in domestic processes in the US are baseless ... no one has given us this proof because it does not exist."
Lavrov offered to publish diplomatic correspondence between Moscow and Washington from October 2016 to November 2017 that would "dispel all suspicions that are baseless."
Pompeo pushed back on Lavrov's assertion that the Trump administration "refused" to allow Moscow to publish the correspondence.
"We'll publish all the documents we think appropriate," Pompeo said. "We think we've shared plenty of facts to show what happened in the 2016 election with our Russian counterparts. We don't think there's any mistake about what really transpired there."
Referring to his discussions with Lavrov, Pompeo also said he raised "interference in our domestic affairs," and added that, "I was clear, it's unacceptable."
"Should Russia or any foreign actor work to undermine our democratic" process, the Trump administration will take steps, Pompeo said.
When a reporter challenged Lavrov's assertion that the US has provided no proof of Moscow's interference by asking if Lavrov had read the Mueller report, Lavrov sidestepped by shifting the focus. "We read it," Lavrov said. "There was no proof of any collusion."
Pompeo told an interviewer Monday that the timing of Tuesday's meetings wasn't meant to coincide with the impeachment inquiry.
"This is something that Foreign Minister Lavrov and I have been working for a long time," Pompeo told One America News Network on Monday. "We didn't pick this date to coincide with the process on Capitol Hill, but we can't allow the zaniness that's taking place on Capitol Hill to impact our job -- the President's job, it's my job -- to keep the American people safe, to continue our diplomatic undertakings. We're not going to let that activity distract us from this important work."
An administration official had told CNN that Trump was expected to discuss nuclear arms with Lavrov and in particular, the New START Treaty.
Trump has said he hopes to strike a deal with Russia to replace the Obama-era deal that limits nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States.
Trump calls the measure one-sided and hopes to include China, a prospect that arms control experts say is highly improbable, as Beijing has far fewer nuclear weapons than either Washington or Moscow and is unlikely to agree to cap their number.
Lavrov made that point himself, saying that China has been "clear they will not take part" because "neither on the number or the structure of their nuclear arsenal they're not on par with Russia and the US."
New START is set to expire in a little more than a year, but there haven't been significant working-level discussions between the US, Russia and China on how to go about replacing it. Some administration officials have grumbled there isn't a clear point person responsible for shepherding nuclear talks with Russia.
For his part, Lavrov pointed out that "there is no specific offer on the table by our American partners and it will take some time" to reach an agreement.
The official said Trump had hoped to make progress toward finding a replacement deal during the Oval Office talks with Lavrov. In his embassy press conference after the meeting, Lavrov said that Moscow is ready to sign an extension of the existing deal now and that the ball "is in the US hands... our proposal is on the table."
Pompeo also raised the case of Paul Whelan, a US citizen detained for almost a year in a Moscow prison on charges of espionage. Lavrov said that the Marine reservist has been "threatening" and "arrogant" and even though he has complained about a hernia, he has refused surgery.
"He is threatening the penitentiary officers and he, he makes all kinds of arrogant accusations," Lavrov said of Whelan. "For example he says, he is saying that he will put a drill to the head of the officer."
"If these tactics of the lawyers are aimed at to create an image of a martyr... that is not a correct approach and an honest one," Lavrov said. "I would like to repeat again we are acting in full compliance with our law and international norms that can be applied in this case."
Lavrov's arrival in Washington follows a Monday meeting in Paris between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that established tentative steps toward ending the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. The conflict, which began after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, has claimed around 13,000 lives in the last five years.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brokered the five-and-a-half hour talks between Putin and Zelensky, and finished with an agreement that all parties would "commit to a full and comprehensive implementation" of a ceasefire in Ukraine by the end of the year.