WASHINGTON — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed his meeting with President Trump in a press conference shortly after they spoke on Wednesday. Lavrov told reporters at the Russian Embassy that he did not talk with Trump about the accusations Moscow meddled in last year’s U.S. presidential election. He also praised the Trump administration’s “businesslike” approach to Russia, in contrast to what he described as the more ideological position of former President Barack Obama. Lavrov expressed optimism that the Trump administration and Russia can “contribute jointly to the settlement of the most urgent issues in international affairs,” including the war in Syria.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of obtaining and publicizing (by way of Wikileaks) hacked emails from Democrats to hurt Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton. Trump has called the accusations a “total hoax.” Yahoo News asked Lavrov whether Trump assured him that he does not believe the intelligence community’s belief that Russia intervened in the presidential race. Lavrov, who spoke through a translator, laughed and explained why he didn’t talk about the issue with Trump.
“We seem to be all grownups. I never thought that I would have to answer such questions, particularly here in the U.S., taking into account your highly developed democratic political system,” Lavrov said, adding, “President Trump publicly stated on a number of occasions what he thinks about accusations and allegations regarding Russia’s meddling into your domestic affairs, and that is why there is no need for him to tell us anything or to give us assurance behind closed doors.”
Lavrov, who called the allegations “absurd” and “false news,” went on to argue there is insufficient evidence to prove Russia worked to sway the outcome of the election.
“There is not a single fact. There is no compelling evidence given to anyone regarding Russia’s intervention, and that’s it,” he said.
The press conference took place in a small auditorium, opulently decorated with chandeliers and fabric-covered walls, inside Russia’s large embassy campus. Reporters heard an English translation of Lavrov’s remarks on headphones at each of the seats, which before the conference began played a soundtrack of pop hits, including the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
The vibrations were less welcoming once Lavrov took his seat at a table on the stage and curtly admonished photographers who crowded in to snap pictures.
“Not very polite,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov came to the press conference straight from the White House, where he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and met with President Trump in the Oval Office. The Russian diplomat is visiting the United States to attend the Arctic Council meeting in Alaska. During his meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov mocked reporters who asked him about Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, which was announced on Tuesday evening.
“Was he fired?” Lavrov asked. “You’re kidding! You’re kidding!”
Comey’s removal has generated criticism since the FBI is investigating contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials. At the press conference after Lavrov left the White House, Yahoo News asked the Russian foreign minister if he was happy to see Comey go (the FBI was one of the agencies that concluded Moscow intervened in the election and the bureau has continued to probe the question). Lavrov suggested it is a routine matter for officials to be removed from their posts.
“This is a question that has nothing to do with my authority,” Lavrov said of Comey. “I can give you lots of examples when, in Russia, in France, in Great Britain, people are appointed, then dismissed. That is your internal issue.”
President Obama levied sanctions against Russia in December as a response to what the U.S. intelligence community concluded was Moscow’s meddling in the presidential race. These sanctions included Russian diplomats being ordered to leave the country and the seizure of some diplomatic facilities. Lavrov said he did not discuss these sanctions at the White House, though he described the issue of Russia’s “diplomatic property” as a “priority” and said he is confident Trump views the sanctions as “illegal.”
“It is clear that the outgoing Obama administration undertook very pitiful dirty tricks against our diplomats and our property,” Lavrov said. “Our diplomats were ordered to get out of the country and they were given only 24 hours to do that. I believe that everyone understands in Trump’s administration that these are illegal actions.”
After Obama levied the sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would hold off retaliating until Trump took office in January in order to get a sense of the new administration’s policies towards Moscow. Trump praised Putin’s decision as a “great move.” In Washington, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s desire not to be “hasty” with any retaliation, but indicated it is still a possibility.
“As of now, we decided not to be hasty with retaliation because President Putin doesn’t want to follow the lead of those who are trying to poison our relations to the point of no return,” said Lavrov. “Our American partners are aware of our position. They know about our right to retaliate. … We wouldn’t want to use this right and we do hope we’ll be able to settle the situation without deteriorating our relations even further.”
Lavrov repeatedly blasted the Obama administration’s relationship with Russia. He said Obama’s White House “bent over backwards to undermine the solid foundation of our relations and right now we have to start from a very low level of our relations.” Lavrov described the Trump administration as taking a more “businesslike, fruitful approach” and said his deputies will be regularly in communication with Tillerson’s.
“We agreed to continue using this channel to address the irritants that were artificially introduced into our relations,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov predicted this approach could lead to solutions on several major international issues including the war in Syria. He said Syria was discussed in “great detail” during his White House visit and that America and Russia have a “common understanding” that establishing safe zones for civilians would be a positive step in that conflict. Russia signed a deal with Iran and Turkey to establish four safe zones that went into effect earlier this month, but questions remain about exactly how the plan will be enforced and monitored.
Russia is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been accused of multiple atrocities, including a chemical attack last month that left dozens of civilians dead. Assad’s regime is fighting rebel forces, including the jihadist group ISIS. Obama repeatedly called for Assad to step down and provided training and equipment to certain factions of the Syrian rebels, but avoided direct military action. The Trump administration, which responded to the chemical attack with a cruise-missile barrage against a Syrian airbase, has sent conflicting messages about ousting Assad. Lavrov said Russia believes the focus should be on eliminating extremist groups in Syria.
“We need to prevent it from turning into the hotbed of extremism, of instability. We need to prevent the development of such a scenario as evolved in Iraq and Libya,” Lavrov said, later adding, “When we are talking about the Syrian settlement, why don’t we try to learn from our mistakes. … Why don’t we try to focus on the settlement rather than on ousting a certain person?”
In general, Lavrov suggested the Trump administration and Russia are moving forward on plans improve the relationship between the two countries and resolve the conflict in Syria and other pressing international issues.
“We won’t be able to address all the problems overnight, it is obvious. But there is a desire to move in the direction of a settlement to all these problems,” Lavrov said. “President Trump clearly stated his intention to build businesslike, pragmatic relations with Russia.”
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