When President Donald Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office Wednesday just hours after firing the FBI director who was overseeing an investigation into whether Trump’s team colluded the Russians, he was breaking with recent precedent at the specific request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, And indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”
The meeting was Lavrov’s first in the White House since 2013—and came after several years of the Obama administration’s flat-out refusal to grant him an Oval Office audience, two former senior White House officials told me. “The Russians were begging us for years to do that,” one of the former officials said. “They were constantly pushing for it and we were constantly saying no.”
The images of Trump putting his arm genially on Lavrov’s back—and a later White House official readout of the meeting that said Trump “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia”—couldn’t have come at a more fraught political moment for Trump, amid a barrage of bipartisan criticism of his firing of FBI director James Comey. On Wednesday morning before meeting with Trump, Lavrov even cracked a joke about his hosts’ political predicament, laughingly claiming not to have heard of the Comey firing while standing alongside Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
In other words, Lavrov was right where he has always wanted to be Wednesday: mocking the United States while being welcomed in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Russia’s longest-serving foreign minister of the post-Cold War era, Lavrov has worked alongside Putin since 2004 with a single-minded goal: to make Russia great again—and all the better if he could do so at America’s expense. So for Lavrov and Putin, the scene was more than just a bizarre moment of Washington political theater with them playing a walk-on role. It was vindication, proof that their tilt toward Trump after years of tense dealings with two successive American presidents could yet pay off.
In some key respects, this already is a down payment on the Russian reset Trump promised on the campaign trail. Or at least an appearance-laden first step toward the renewed relations and potential grand bargain with Putin that Trump has never disavowed even as the politics of doing a deal with Russia have gotten dicier amid the political furor here in Washington over the Russiagate investigation of team Trump that Comey was overseeing. “The fact of the matter is the president and secretary of state have said relations are at a low ebb and it’s important to get them back up from the floor, and to do that we’ve got to talk,” National Security Council head of strategic communications Michael Anton told me about the “warm” session between Trump and the Russians. “Maybe we can see some semblance of cooperation in Syria. Some semblance in Ukraine. We certainly don’t have much prospect of progress if we don’t talk.”
“For Lavrov, just having this meeting and the photo-op itself is a big demonstration to the world and to the Russian people that Russia is back, and that isolation has failed, irrespective of whether anything gets agreed,” said Alexander Vershbow, who served as ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush and a top Pentagon and NATO official with the Russia portfolio during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Like Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and Republican foreign policy grandee Trump also unexpectedly hosted in the Oval Office Wednesday, Sergey Lavrov fashions himself a realist in the cold-eyed world of international politics. He has long preached the idea that meddling American presidents like Bush and Obama should just give up on noble-sounding, naïve ventures like bringing democracy to the Middle East and concentrate on more hard-headed goals like fighting Islamic jihadist terrorism or making new great-power deals on European spheres of influence.
That sounds a lot like Trumpism, and indeed, it may be the key even more than his realpolitik ideology for understanding why the Lavrov meeting was such a big win for Russia. Lavrov defines himself as the ultimate “pragmatist,” as he told me in a 2013 interview for a Foreign Policy magazine profile, and his goal is to advance the Russian state however he can; clearly, the views that Lavrov has long touted on things like fighting terrorism suggest a basis for common ground with America’s similarly unsentimental new president.
I’ve spent dozens of hours in recent years debriefing American officials about Lavrov, and they are united—Democrats and Republicans alike—in believing that the Russian foreign minister is both a) an ideologically flexible nationalist who is happy to engage in America-bashing when it suits his purposes and equally happy praising someone like Trump if necessary because b) his great value to Putin has been his world-class skills as a propagandist and purveyor of “fake news” on a par with Trump himself.
This is what John Negroponte, a Republican who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when Lavrov was his Russian counterpart and then as Bush’s director of national intelligence, told me back in 2013: “His two objectives were always the same: veto things for the greater glory of Russia and to take the Americans down wherever possible.”
But being against America, Negroponte added, was a tactic, not the end in itself. “If he has a moral compass, my Geiger counter hasn’t clicked into it,” he told me. “His morality is the Russian state.” These views were almost exactly what I heard when I checked with four former top Obama officials on Wednesday about more recent dealings with Lavrov.
On a personal level, Lavrov is universally disliked among U.S. diplomats. “He’s a complete asshole,” a top Bush official told me for that Foreign Policy profile. Added a top Obama official in a conversation Wednesday: “He’s a nasty SOB. He would be relentlessly berating and browbeating and sarcastic and nasty. His job was to berate and beat and harass us and Secretary Kerry into conceding the Russian view. It wasn’t defeating America; it was that Russia can’t win if it has to compromise at all.”
These are unbelievably striking comments – and not at all what former senior officials have to say about foreign ministers from other countries in the world, even those with whom the United States is at odds.
And many of these same officials believe that gives Lavrov—who went out of his way at a press conference Wednesday to praise Trump as a “businessman” who wants to get deals done—an advantage in negotiating with Trump at a time when there is little clear about his foreign policy except that he wants to cut deals that are proving frustratingly elusive on other fronts..
“I don’t see him as zero-sum and suspicious of and averse to the West as Putin is,” said another former Obama official who sat in many meetings in recent years with Lavrov. “He believes more in at least tactical cooperation, at least in a broader context of strategic nonalignment. I think he did actually look for opportunities. I also think he plays to his bosses. So the extent to which he’s acerbic and nasty—that’s partly his personality and partly what he believes Putin and actual powers that be want to hear.”
A number of Russia policy experts with whom I spoke on Wednesday worry, too, that Trump is allowing Lavrov—and Putin—to define the terms of his dealings with them on key issues such as Ukraine and Syria.
Trump may be politically constrained—at least temporarily—from pursuing more publicly his hoped-for Russia reconciliation, but that also means that no one here has a clear sense of what his new Russia policy actually is.
“There is no Russia policy,” said one career expert flatly.
Indeed, even though the ouster of Trump’s first national security adviser, the compromised and Russia-friendly Michael Flynn, in favor of the widely respected H.R. McMaster, happened nearly three months ago, those who follow the issue closely say there has been little clarification about Trump’s Russia stance beyond vague reassurances that Trump would not execute a sharp turn toward Putin and that no high-level NSC principals or deputies meetings have yet been held on Russia policy. Both Tillerson and McMaster were present for Trump’s meeting with Lavrov.
“Everyone had been hopeful that adult supervision would mean that Trump’s foreign policy would become more predictable and rational,” said another longtime Russia hand. “We thought he would be constrained from making stupid decisions on Russia policy because of all this furor. But look at this mad-tweeting and the Comey decision: Anything can change at any moment.”
And if Trump does not have a Russia policy, Putin certainly has a U.S. policy, these experts believe, with priorities that include getting Trump to go along with Putin’s plan for some sort of settlement to the long-running Syria civil war that leaves Russia and its client the Assad regime with control over at least a significant chunk of Syria’s territory. On Ukraine, given that lifting the sanctions against Russia imposed after its takeover of Crimea appears to be a nonstarter on Capitol Hill, Putin seems to be willing to play for time.
Inside Trump’s fledgling administration, all this comes as there are still few top officials who have been appointed to take charge of the Russia portfolio. Longtime Russia hand Fiona Hill, author of a critical book on Putin, is the National Security Council’s senior director for the region, but there is no assistant secretary at the State Department named to take on the issue and the U.S. sent a career official to observe recent Russia-led talks on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan, rather than participating; Tom Shannon, a career official who is undersecretary of state for political affairs, has been charged with resolving bilateral problems but few see that process—similar to one under way during the Obama administration—as likely to produce major results.
The Trump team has discussed with a Russia approach that would include a possible special U.S. envoy to talk with Moscow directly on Ukraine, but an aide said Trump did not specifically suggest the idea in the meeting Wednesday though the White House readout did note that Trump “raised Ukraine and stressed his administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict.”
All of which is to say that if there is a Trump Russia policy, at the moment it’s probably coming from the president himself and not his executive branch—which makes Wednesday’s meeting all the more significant. Soon, Trump is expected to have his first face-to-face meeting with Putin, on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in July.
Both Trump and Putin, as one of the Russia hands told me, are experts at spinning alternate realities. But will they try to spin each other? How can you get along and really forge a working partnership, he wondered, when for each, “their attachment to the truth is so tenuous”?