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World

After Firing FBI Director, Trump Meets With Russian Foreign Minister

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Possible Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election might be the top story in Washington these days, but Russia's foreign minister says it didn't even come up when he met with President Trump at the White House today. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Russians are eager to improve relations with the U.S., and the Trump administration seems ready for that as well.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has rarely visited Washington in recent years. On this trip, though, he was posing for pictures with President Trump and telling reporters at the Russian Embassy afterwards that the talks were free of what he calls the ideology of the Obama administration.

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SERGEY LAVROV: (Through interpreter) The Trump administration, the president himself and the secretary of state are people of action, and they want to make deals. They aren't doing this to score ideological points but to solve real problems.

KELEMEN: Lavrov came to Washington to promote Russia's plan for so-called de-confliction zones in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Syria could be one area where the U.S. and Russia could work together to rebuild trust. Lavrov was asked repeatedly, though, if Russia's election meddling came up in the discussions. He dismissed it as a lot of noise.

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LAVROV: (Through interpreter) President Trump and I talked about concrete things. And we didn't even touch on those absurd allegations.

KELEMEN: The official White House and State Department readouts also didn't mention Russia's meddling in U.S. elections, and that angered the ranking Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, Ben Cardin.

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BEN CARDIN: Did we really hear a commitment by the president of the United States that we would not tolerate that type of behavior by Russia - no, business as usual. The president wants to establish a friendlier relationship with Russia.

KELEMEN: Others question the optics of meeting with the Russian foreign minister a day after firing the FBI director who had been investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. White House Spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders brushed all that aside, saying Trump's meeting with Lavrov and separate talks with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were already scheduled.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Frankly, the saddest thing is that the Democrats are trying to politicize and take away from something the president should be doing. He should be meeting with the foreign minister. He should be leading - meeting with people like Kissinger.

KELEMEN: President Trump also posed for pictures with the Russian ambassador whose many conversations with campaign officials raised red flags last year. Russia's embassy was quick to post those images on Twitter. In addition to photo ops, Russian diplomats had some other business they hoped to accomplish in Washington. Last year, the Obama administration shut down two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland and kicked out 35 Russian officials. Foreign Minister Lavrov says this is Russian property that should be returned.

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LAVROV: (Through interpreter) It is clear that in its final days, the Obama administration took petty action against our diplomats and our property. They ordered our diplomats out in 24 hours. Everyone in the Trump administration understands that these were illegitimate actions.

KELEMEN: The State Department wouldn't say whether this was part of the discussions between Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson, and officials point out that the U.S. took the action against Russia in part because of how U.S. diplomats have been treated in Russia. Secretary Tillerson didn't speak to reporters after meeting his Russian counterpart. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.