Is the Lavrov Visit/Comey Firing Clash Just Bad Optics?

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Donald Trump. Maxim Trudolyubov writes that the meeting between the two men might have been seen as an all-positive development were it not for Trump’s decision, on Tuesday, to dismiss FBI director James Comey. The abrupt firing is consequential in many respects, but one issue was bound to dominate the public discussion: the FBI’s unfinished investigation into the Trump 2016 presidential campaign’s possible ties with Russia. Maxim Zmeyev/Lucas Jackson/reuters

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

The Trump's administration's highest-level meeting with Russia took place on Wednesday morning. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called on President Trump in the White House, the first such visit since 2013.

"It's unclear when the meeting with Trump was set," Politico reports. "But it is customary for the president to receive a visiting Russian foreign minister. Tillerson met with Putin during his April 12 visit to the Kremlin."

The meeting might have been seen as an all-positive development were it not for President Donald Trump's decision, on Tuesday, to dismiss FBI director James Comey. The abrupt firing is consequential in many respects, but one issue was bound to dominate the public discussion: the FBI's unfinished investigation into the Trump 2016 presidential campaign's possible ties with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin and the White House are busy preparing an upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents, Lavrov said recently in a televised interview. "You see, both us and the Americans need this meeting not to make an impression on somebody, but to deliver specific results," Lavrov said. "And to deliver specific results it has to be prepared thoroughly. We are working on that right now."

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While in Washington, Lavrov also met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss Syria and Ukraine. On Thursday the two men headed separately to Alaska for a meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The firing of former director Comey and the high-profile talks with Russia are clearly a coincidence, but the two narratives will inevitably intertwine in media reports, despite the Kremlin's and White House's best efforts.

"This has nothing to do with Russia," Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser, told CNN late Tuesday evening. "Somebody must be getting $50 every time (Russia) is said on TV…. (This) has everything to do with whether the current FBI director has the President's confidence and can faithfully execute his duties."

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Politicians of all colors will only increase their scrutiny of the Russia probe. Journalists will find it hard not to draw connections between the Russia probe and the Trump administration's intensified contacts with Russia. The New York Times called the announcement late Tuesday night that Trump would meet Lavrov "an instance of bizarre timing and optics."

Coincidentally, hours before the Comey news broke, CNN reported that federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, seeking business records as part of the Russia probe. Flynn is under investigation for his financial ties to Russia and Turkey.

The collision of facts and their interpretations will inevitably fuel the mistrust in the virtual triangle of the U.S. administration, the Kremlin and international media. Meanwhile, the most likely reason for intensified contacts is a realization on both sides that they need each other to produce any lasting results in the Middle East and more generally in international security.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and editor at large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily.