WASHINGTON — What a day for President Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with a top Russian official.
Only hours after dismissing James B. Comey as director of the F.B.I., amid an investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, the president is scheduled to see Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, at the White House. It is the only item on the president’s public schedule for Wednesday.
Mr. Lavrov began his day at the State Department, meeting Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, and the subject of Mr. Comey came up, briefly, in what the State Department hoped would be a controlled encounter with the press.
After Mr. Tillerson thanked Mr. Lavrov for coming to Washington, the two men began to leave the diplomatic reception room on the seventh floor of the State Department. When a reporter shouted a question about whether Mr. Comey’s dismissal “cast a shadow” on the meeting, Mr. Lavrov, known for a puckish sense of humor, shot back:
“Was he fired? You’re kidding! You’re kidding!”
He then turned and followed Mr. Tillerson into his office.
The bare-bones description given by Mr. Tillerson’s spokesman suggested that on the official agenda are the new Russian plan for safe zones in Syria, the campaign against the Islamic State, weapons development in North Korea and the continued Russian activity in Ukraine. But the two men are planning no news conference, perhaps because the one they held in Moscow, one month ago, proved little more than how far apart the two countries are.
At that news conference, they differed on whether Syria was responsible for a gas attack that killed civilians and led to the American airstrike on a Syrian military base. At the same event, Mr. Tillerson left no doubt that he believed the American intelligence reports that Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Before and since, Mr. Trump has described that as “fake news,” and said the continued investigation was a waste of taxpayer money.
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Clearly the State Department wanted no chance of a repeat of those kinds of inquiries.
It seems doubtful that the election hacking, or the sanctions President Barack Obama imposed on Russia in the last days of his administration, will be topics of conversation at the Oval Office meeting. That seems too fraught for the White House, at a time that federal investigators are still examining whether Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, made any promises to reverse the sanctions in a telephone conversation in late December with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak.
But the issue will certainly hang over the meeting. Many outside analysts, and some administration officials, say that it is now nearly impossible for Mr. Trump to lift either the sanctions Mr. Obama put in place or the far more powerful sanctions imposed after the Russian seizure of Crimea. Mr. Tillerson said in Moscow those sanctions would remain as long as Russia did not reverse its actions, and the new senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, has been among the most vociferous critics of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
But Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Trump are clearly trying to organize a first meeting between the two presidents, likely to come on the edges of a summit meeting this summer. And the United States will have to decide whether to embrace a Russian plan for safe zones in Syria, something that Mr. Trump endorsed in the campaign but that the Pentagon has largely rejected because it could lead to more American involvement on the ground in the civil war.