High tensions as Russian diplomat visits Washington

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet with his Russian counterpart on Wednesday in Washington amid high tensions over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election last year.

Adding to the drama: The meeting will take place a day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into any ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

The trip is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s first to Washington since 2013 and comes at what Tillerson has described as a low point in U.S.-Russia relationship. The White House announced Wednesday morning that Trump would meet with Lavrov at 10:30 a.m. in the Oval Office. The meeting is closed to the press. 

As Tillerson and Lavrov appeared on camera Wednesday to begin their visit, Lavrov was peppered with questions about Comey's firing. 

He responded with a joke about the firing. "You're kidding, you're kidding," he said, feigning surprise at the news.

Trump assumed office hoping to develop better ties with Moscow despite Russia’s disinformation and hacking efforts in the election.

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But those hopes dimmed when the United States launched dozens of missiles in April at an air base used by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, which came in response to a chemical weapons attack the West has blamed on that government. The White House accused Russia, Assad’s main international backer, of trying to cover up the attack, which killed dozens of civilians.

This is the second meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov this month. It follows Tillerson’s highly publicized trip to Moscow, where the U.S. diplomat acknowledged the “low level of trust” between the two countries. The two officials spoke by phone on Friday.

The meeting will present an opportunity, experts say, for Tillerson to clarify the U.S. government’s role in implementing a partial ceasefire agreement in Syria brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Tillerson could also provide more insight into the new administration’s strategy for Ukraine, which has largely been viewed thus far as an extension of the Obama administration’s approach. Many in Congress have pressed the government to arm the Ukrainians with defensive weaponry over the course of the three-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, to no avail.

“The area where they really need to trade notes and discuss is Ukraine,” said Julie Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenPoll shows 36 percent support Trump's reelection, 43 percent prefer generic Democrat Trump's approval rating holds steady at 45 percent amid government shutdown: poll Hugh Hewitt: Biden has 'transgendered' into Ocasio-Cortez MORE. “What is the United States’ Russia policy right now? I don’t think anyone knows what that is.”

While many welcomed Tillerson’s harder stance toward Moscow in April, there are high expectations for the secretary’s next moves when it comes to Syria, Ukraine and other bilateral issues.

Experts and lawmakers see the potential for Tillerson to broach Russian election interference efforts, which he briefly addressed at the face-to-face with Lavrov in Moscow last month.

Focus on the issue has been renewed this week, in light of congressional testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was “compromised” by Moscow and wide speculation that Russia similarly attempted to influece the recent French presidential elections.

“I think it would be useful to raise. I don’t think Secretary Tillerson needs to make it a major point,” said John Herbst, a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council who served as ambassador to Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration. “Moscow’s been doing this without a serious response from us.”

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days MORE (D-N.H.) told the The Hill that it would be a “significant misstep” for Tillerson not to address Russian interference efforts.

“I urge Secretary Tillerson to address Russia’s ongoing interference in the U.S., France, Germany and other European nations during his meeting with Mr. Lavrov,” Shaheen said. “The failure to discuss Russia’s campaign of aggression, would, in my judgment, be a significant misstep by the Trump administration.”

Tillerson may not raise the issue at all.

Trump has often cast suspicion on the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the election with the goal of hurting Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media Poll shows 36 percent support Trump's reelection, 43 percent prefer generic Democrat How the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit MORE’s campaign. He recently suggested that it could have been China that hacked the Democratic National Committee.

The FBI is conducting an investigation into whether there were any connections between Trump officials and Russia’s actions. 

“I don’t have a high degree of confidence that this administration will [call the Russians out],” said Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russia and international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s unfortunate because it means that Russia will continue to believe it has carte blanche to do these things.”

Russian officials have repeatedly denied interfering in the election, a claim Lavrov is expected to repeat should the subject be raised.

While the second meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov is likely to again be fraught with tension, some could inevitably see the invitation as an olive branch to the Russians, given that Lavrov has not visited Washington in several years.

“It does appear that this is a little bit of a reset,” said Smith. “Since they went into Crimea, we haven’t engaged the Russians in Washington.”

Smith argued that Lavrov’s visit “should have been denied because of what they did in our elections.”