The Kremlin on Wednesday downplayed President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and instead focused on ways that Russia and the United States can cooperate on other issues such as Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, talking about collaboration without raising the issue of Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 election, according to the White House.
Comey, who was terminated Tuesday, was leading the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation on Russia’s alleged interference in the campaign, and possible collusion with Trump's staff.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Comey's dismissal does not concern Russia and would not influence ties between the two countries.
“This is the U.S. president’s sovereign decision which does not have anything to do with Russia and should not have anything to do with Russia,” said Dmitry Peskov, according to the Associated Press.
Trump, in his meeting with Lavrov, “emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria, in particular, underscoring the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian proxies,” the White House said.
Trump said the U.S. expects Russia to fully implement the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, and raised “the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere,” according to a White House statement after the meeting.
Earlier at the State Department, Lavrov made a joke when a reporter asked if Comey's firing would “cast a shadow on your talks.”
“Was he fired?” Lavrov asked. The reporter answered “yes.” Lavrov continued: “You are kidding. You are kidding.” He then waived his hand with a nod of his head, and walked away with a smiling Tillerson.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed Wednesday's meetings with Lavrov as a “photo op and a wasted opportunity.”
“It appears that the President and Secretary Tillerson were more focused on making friends with Minister Lavrov than confronting Putin’s envoy on Russia's troubling behavior,” Engel said in a statement. “If the top issue in both meetings wasn’t Russia’s criminal meddling in American democracy, then the administration is sending the message that hostile governments can interfere in American elections with impunity.”
John Bolton, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, said it was a mistake not to bring up the election interference issue.
"I don’t think the president should have raised it, but I think it should have been raised by Tillerson,” said Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.
Tillerson should have told Lavrov “we’re pursuing an investigation and when the investigation is completed there will be consequences for what you did,” Bolton said. “At some point, you absolutely say that to the Russians.”
Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, called the White House message on Trump’s meeting with Lavrov “happy talk.”
The White House is “not going to be able to run away from the rest of us — foreign policy experts, senators, national security experts — who want to know about what Russia did by violating our sovereignty last year,” he said.